Monday 31 December 2012

A tale of two cities (well, housing estates actually)

Cherque Farm is probably the newest large-scale housing development in the boroughs of Gosport and Fareham. The last of its 1,050 homes were completed in 2008.
Having been brought up from the age of 5 in Lee on Solent, I remember as a child playing in the fields of Cherque Farm when it really was a farm – cereals mainly – and I have seen how it has changed, firstly into a large gravel extraction scheme and finally into a housing estate.  Its eventual sale for housing was fiercely resisted at the time by local residents who, while perhaps reasonably labelled Nimbies, did have some legitimate concerns about the burdens large housing developments would place on local infrastructure, notably the sewage network and the roads, and the lack of any local strategy to create the jobs for the people who would live there, especially in an era of declining Naval employment in the borough.
At 100 acres the density is over 10 homes per acre – quite a high density for detached and semi-detached dwellings in a fully suburban setting.
And happily, perhaps in response to the local concerns about transport links, the estate does seem to have been planned to be less car-dependent than most housing estates built in the previous couple of decades.  Below is a snapshot from Gosport Borough Council’s cycle route map:

The roads have been designed purely for access to resident’s homes.  It is not entirely obvious from the plan, but the roads which pass through the centre of the estate pass out to the wider road network in only four places.  There is no end-to-end through route, and only one side-to-side, near the northern end.   There are few straight stretches of any length, and those have speed cushions.  The estate is encircled by a belt of cycle paths (shared use with pedestrians) with multiple access points to individual streets and closes, providing a high level of filtered permeability.  On this plan these are represented by the solid blue lines and by the two short yellow lines which represent former roads which have since been choked off.  In fact, there are more cycle access points than are shown on this plan – virtually every cul-de-sac is open to foot and bike. 

Shown here the entry from the route parallel to Cherque Way

a section of the path passing around the south

and about half way along the south-west side.


The residential streets to the west, leading into the centre of Lee on Solent, have no specific cycle provision and are not explicitly traffic-calmed but they offer no real advantage as rat-runs and so are generally used only for access.  The busier distributor roads around it, leading to the north and to the south east, are tracked by separated shared-use paths.  How useful, or not, this wider network is can wait for another post.

This of course is a virtually brand-new development.  Most of the housing stock in the borough is much older - mainly post-war, but part of a housing boom which fell largely in the '60s and '70s.  At that time of course housing estates were very much being built around the private car, although the assumption then would have been that there would be only one car per household.  Separate cycle paths would not have been laid, even where there is more than ample space, and street geometry would have favoured rapid movement of cars with minimal need to slow or stop, as evidenced below in this shot from the Bridgemary estate, location of one of the borough's most popular secondary schools. 


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The view above is looking down part of the cycle route from Lee on Solent to this school, and the route turns at this junction to the left of the picture.  The off-road path ends at the junction straight ahead, and cyclists are supposed to rejoin the road here - although staying on the footpath to the right is a major temptation - but the volume and speed of traffic in this area is managed by some permeability measures, notably the banned right turn onto the main road ahead.  All the same, the streets in this area almost invariably have ample space for an off-road cycle path, albeit shared, but few of them do.  The result, as can be seen below, is predictable.

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Sunday 30 December 2012

Heaven hath no rage to show

like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a [frustrated motorist] (with apologies to Edmund Spenser).
“Fury at new parking restrictions” proclaimed the front-page headline in the “Haslemere Herald” in one of its November issues.  They do Fury in Haslemere, a pleasant market town tucked away in the far south west corner of Surrey, like they do Disgust in Tunbridge Wells.  And a short-term suspension of a handful of on-street parking bays makes the top of the front page in the local newspaper – aren’t we lucky to have nothing else to fret about, eh?
The back-story is that one of the through roads passing through the town, the B2131, Lower Street (at bottom of the map extract below) had been closed for several weeks in the summer while Centrica replaced gas mains underneath.    

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For the duration of the works, traffic passing through the town on an east-west axis was diverted along Bridge Street and West Street, slightly to the north.  Both these streets have significant amounts of on-street parking and this was suspended to ensure that traffic could flow freely and – most importantly – that emergency service vehicles, including fire appliances from the Fire Station located just at the corner of Popes Mead, would not be impeded on their call-outs. 
Some felt that the diversion of traffic away from the town centre, and the loss of these parking spaces, had a detrimental effect on trade for small shopkeepers in the town.
A private developer, building an apartment block and associated retail space on Lower Street, was supposed to co-ordinate with Centrica on  its own need to impinge on road space at a certain phase of construction, but it failed to do so, and consequently sought a traffic order later to close the road in one direction so that they could erect scaffolding and hoardings and get their work done.  For this period, which was applied for until February but in fact finished shortly before Christmas, West Street again became part of the through-route, this time in one direction only but, again to facilitate movements of fire appliances and buses, the parking bays were suspended.  Hence the fury.
Haslemere has a significant parking problem, primarily with rail commuters, who come to the town’s railway station, which has fast services to Waterloo which must rank among the fastest, in miles per hour, of all Home Counties commuter journeys.  This makes the surrounding area very popular for more affluent commuters to jobs in the City and West End, and residential development over the last decade or so has reflected that.  Further, residents of neighbouring communities such as Liphook, which have their own stations on the line, often prefer to drive to Haslemere rather than walk to the local station because the choice of services is better.

Additionally, there is a surprisingly large number of residents who drive to the station even though they live within an easy walking or cycling distance of the station.
As a consequence, the provision of station parking off-street is woefully inadequate to the demand, and many hundreds of commuters park on the surrounding streets.  Even if there were sufficient station parking, many of those would probably continue to park on the street as long as no charge is made – I already observe on my way to the station that the streets fill a lot faster than the official car parks.
Naturally this upsets residents of those streets.  Often their upset is simply annoyance that someone should have the temerity to park in their road, but sometimes it causes real inconvenience.  In some of the closer streets which have houses with no, or only one, off-street parking space, the result is that residents cannot park their own cars near their own homes.  In other cases, commuters park so tightly either side of a resident’s driveway that they cannot manoeuvre to access their own home.
Overlay on this the economics of parking and parking enforcement.   The County Council is now responsible for street parking enforcement since the responsibility was taken off the police, and typically subcontracts to manage the borough’s off-street parking enforcement.  Parking enforcement is clearly vital to keep roads clear and ensure passage of vital services such as buses or ambulances, however it has a considerable financial cost, and like many counties, Surrey currently operates parking at a deficit.  Consequently, Surrey proposed a programme of parking restrictions and charges, mainly aimed at all-day parking, pending the rail operator funding and building additional station parking, after which the on-street parking could be simply prohibited.
The proposals also took in a network of streets in the town centre, where commuter parking is not the main issue, but parking congestion and the same problems for residents arise for other reasons.
It should be noted that in almost all, if not all, of these streets residents have long campaigned to the County to do something about the problems they face.
As soon as the proposals were published, enter stage left the “Haslemere Action Group”, a small but noisy group of individuals who proceeded to stridently oppose the plans.  They have a website, which I am not going to link to but you can find it at haslemereparkingdotcom.  Have a look, if you have no worries about your blood pressure.  (Its self-description as an "open, sensible and democratic forum" brings to mind Voltaire's observation about the Holy Roman Empire:  certainly they seem to be blocking my contributions now, even going to the length of removing a post effectively accusing local councillors of corruption, when I pointed out some factual howlers, rather than publishing my comments.)
They opposed both the restrictions and the proposed charges across the board.  They attended local committee meetings of the County and Borough councillors and heckled and barracked them. They ranted and grandstanded, all with the aim of killing the proposals stone-dead.  They succeeded, insofar as the County retreated to reconsider its proposals and ensure that its consultation processes were legally watertight before relaunching in modified form this summer.
But the consultation process, scrupulously observing the legal requirements, was not good enough for the HAG.  They complained that the response rate was low (30-35%) and overlooked the fact that responses in favour outnumbered those against by two to one.  They ignored previous representations by residents’ groups  which in some cases had almost unanimous support.  Against this they argued for their own petition, of 1,000 signatures (about 6% of the town’s population) collected on the street, which no doubt included many non-residents and no doubt also some who only signed to avoid making a scene on the High Street.
The moving forces behind the parking campaign appear to be a handful of local retailers, and a couple who live in a street which has no off-road and no on-road parking.  The latter I suspect bought their house in the knowledge that they could not park a car there, but the expectation that they could park it outside someone else’s home in another street, free and without hindrance, and were happy to save the house purchase price which personal parking would have implied.  The proposals would have meant - will mean - buying a season ticket for one of the borough car parks: at a discounted rate, but still a few hundred a year.
The former speak volubly and at length about the perceived damage to their business  which loss of on-street parking would cause.  This despite the fact that the availability of paid-for off-street parking is more than adequate, costing 50p-80p for the first hour, and even that is refunded against your bill if you shop in the local Waitrose.  They don’t mention the true existential threats to their businesses, represented by a commercial landlord notorious for its rapacity, the incursion of predatory chainstores – WH Smith being the latest arrival – and in my view the offputting nature of the car-dominated town centre.  They also don’t mention what I am sure is the real reason for their opposition – it is they who park, all day, for free, in surrounding residential streets, to the annoyance of the residents of those streets, and do not want to lose this privilege.
Meanwhile, Haslemere is no cyclists’ paradise.  While it is surrounded by breathtaking off-road riding on the commons and Surrey Weald, many of the highways into and through the town are deeply hostile to cycling, and cycle facilities are almost non-existent.  Probably about 60-70 commuters from the railway station arrive by bike, completely saturating the current cycle parking – and the local MP Jeremy Hunt is being helpful in pressing for additional parking capacity at the station – but this option would only appeal to the bolder, youngish male, cyclist .  In the town centre, you hardly ever see a bicycle at all, unless it is me, going shopping.  That can wait for another post.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Gosport – the forgotten bicycling borough

Which local authority enjoys a higher bicycle use – according at least to the recent DfT analysis of travel trends by borough – than Bristol or Hackney, but you have never heard of it?
See here:

Local Authority
5 x per week
3 x per week
City of London
Isles of Scilly
Bristol, City of

On the DfT’s highest-frequency statistic of percentage of sample cycling 5+  times per week Gosport, near Portsmouth on the Hampshire coast, ranks 8th equal with Hackney and just behind Bristol.  If you broaden the sample out and include 3+ per week – I wouldn’t pretend the lower frequencies in the analysis mean anything – Gosport ranks above both.
I’m not sure this celebrated status is widely recognised,  in fact I doubt that even the burghers of Gosport have noticed yet.   Certainly we hear plenty about Cambridge, and not a little about Bristol and York, but I have never seen an article or blog post in the cycling media about Gosport.  All I have found in my researches are these articles in the Portsmouth Evening News from 2004 and 2007.
So, what does Gosport have which makes it a bicycling borough on this scale?
Unlike Cambridge, Oxford or York, Gosport does not have a large student population, in fact beyond school age it has no student population at all.
Unlike Bristol, Gosport has never enjoyed the kind of ring-fenced funding that comes with Cycling Town status.
It does however share one particular characteristic with Oxford, Cambridge, York and Norwich:  it is flat.
Other geographic al factors are that the borough is fairly compact, about three miles from side to side and  it has a typical south-coast climate – mild and dry.
There is a key historical factor in the development of a cycling culture here too.  Gosport is in essence a Naval town.  A short foot-ferry-ride across the harbour mouth from Portsmouth, it has long had connections with the Royal Navy, largely now defunct, including the principal submarine base at HMS Dolphin, the engineering schools at HMS Daedalus and HMS Sultan, the (nuclear) ammunitions stores at HMS Frater, the helicopter repair facility at Fleetlands, dock facilities at Priddy’s Hard, small-arms practice ranges at Browndown, the naval hospital at Haslar, and a huge housing estate at Rowner for families of Jack Tars away at sea on Her Majesty’s ships.  Many of these establishments are conservation sites or listed buildings, so cannot be adapted to accommodate the car.  Back in the day, they employed large workforces which initially would not have known what a car was, then couldn’t afford one, and finally couldn’t have found anywhere to park one.  So, they  relied on the bicycle, and to some extent still do to this day.  The old establishments are long gone due to forces reductions, but at one time you could be treated to the awesome sight of the end of  the shift, when hordes of dockers would perform what resembled a Le Mans Start through the turnstiles to the bike sheds and then take off, in a peloton resembling Tour de France squared, in the direction of home.

Many others worked in the dockyards in Portsmouth.  A quick look at the map will show you that Portsmouth is little more than walking distance away if you take the harbour ferry, up to 15 miles if you drive around the harbour.
Finally, there are man-made factors.  Another look at the map will show you that Gosport is surrounded on three sides by water – the Solent and Portsmouth Harbour.  Access to the rest of the UK is constricted to a single quadrant, to the north-west, and all traffic has to enter or leave through that bottleneck.  In practical terms, there are just three roads out, one towards Southampton and the other two towards Fareham, which has its own constricting features.  Gosport is apparently the largest town in the country not to have its own railway station.
The traditional industries associated with the Royal Navy have been in decline for decades now, and the employment they once provided has gone too.  Practically no new industry has – until recently at least - been attracted to the area to replace what was lost.  Meanwhile some of the sites were handed over to house builders.  Local residents have long complained about this.  In the 80s, when Hampshire was under pressure to accept more housing and “Solent City” was being conceived, local residents complained loudly about how the infrastructure (mainly the sewers, for some reason) would not be able to cope with the increased population, and where were the jobs for these new residents to work at?  But, the local authorities’ planners were evidently unable, or unwilling, to attack the issue.
The result is that there is about 0.46 jobs for every working-age resident of the borough.  The choice is don’t work, or travel out of area to work.  Those local access routes are among the most congested suburban routes in the country.
On the positive side, the council has invested a great deal more in cycle infrastructure than most other local authorities.  Curiously, they don’t bang the drum about it, perhaps because they feel embarrassed about the conditions which incentivised them to do so. 
A look at their own cycle routes map will show that they have a fairly extensive network of road-side separated cycle paths – shared use in the main, but also mainly a decent width and in low pedestrian footfall areas.   I don’t know Bristol, or York, but my recollection of Oxford and Cambridge is that they are less well served.  (Before anyone is tempted to compare Gosport with Assen however, please don’t –this is England, after all.)
How useful they actually are, is something I plan to cover in future posts.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Can bicycles be an aspirational purchase?

I work in the City of London.  By any standard, my colleagues and I are well paid.  Our most junior fee-earning staff, doing their “articles”, start above the national average salary.  Over 100 of our partners are paid in seven figures.

I do part of my daily commute by bicycle.  Judging by the number of empty spaces (ie not many) in our secure cycle parking facilities, which have a capacity of about 420 bikes, (and which are regularly cleared of “bed blockers”) about 6% of our 7,000 or so staff in London cycle to work – and that doesn’t include the unquantified numbers who, like me, use a folder and tuck it under our desks.  6% is clearly well above the national average and is probably above the average for the City of London but it is not significantly so.  The old, 2002 planning standard for cycle parking in City office buildings was one space for 250 square metres of usable floor space, which for most City concerns translates into one space for about 20-25 staff.  The new 2012 standard in the Local Development Framework will be one for 125 square metres.

Our cycling population goes right across the spectrum of seniority, with young trainees pedalling in from Camberwell and senior partners from Highgate or Kensington.  My ultimate boss, head of tax at our firm, one of those 100, comes in on his Pinarello racer.  This also is typical – senior partners in some of the City’s “magic circle” of law firms are also cycle commuters.

Why do they cycle?  Well, it is not because they can’t afford a car, that’s for sure.  In most cases it won’t be because they are serving a driving ban either.  I doubt many of them do so out of particular concern for the environment – they merrily hop on planes to the US or far east for what often strike me as quite trivial reasons, and one or two of those senior cyclists also own Jags or Ferraris.

Convenience is an important factor of course.  And speed, compared with public transport, or even a taxi as many at the top end will choose daily.  Shoehorning some exercise into a very busy lifestyle which doesn’t provide much time for visits to the gym is also an important factor.

Whatever.  The fact is that a considerable number of rich, or affluent, top professionals use a bicycle entirely out of free choice.  The fact that most of these are men aged 25-50 can’t be ignored, but in general terms you’d have to assume that a large part of the general population would aspire to be like them.

Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher before him, built their political careers, very successful ones too, whatever you may think of them, around the aspirations of the middle- and skilled working-classes.  Thatcher largely through extending home ownership (now that’s a laugh!)  Blair through his “Mondeo Man”, ie the car-owning democracy.

The great ad-man of the mid 20th century, David Ogilvy, is sometimes credited with the old marketing advice “sell the sizzle, not the steak”.  Very few cars are sold on the basis of speed or acceleration, or even practical considerations like boot space or extra seats for the school run.  Even fuel economy is more of a footnote to the ads.  No, cars are sold on dreams of glamour, of being like the beautiful people, of the freedom of the open road (the Riviera Corniche at 4am on midsummer’s Sunday, the bridge at Kylesku in Sutherland, mere miles south of Cape Wrath).  Impossible dreams, but aspirational. 

Bicycles on the other hand are seen by many as something for people without enough money in the bank, or too many points on their licence.  They can even have more negative associations, as Dave Horton’s excellent series of “CyclingStruggles” illustrates – in poor communities, the bicycle may be seen as the escape vehicle of choice for drug pushers.

Can cycling be aspirational?  Can a bicycle become an aspirational purchase?  I don’t count all those sales of racers immediately after watching Bradley Wiggins cross the finishing line.  If that is aspiration, it is of a different kind, as it requires serious effort and most of the aspirers will give up quite quickly once they realise that.  (Or after they realise that the cheap bicycle-shaped object they bought is too horrible to ride).  Aspiring to a car on the other hand is easy-peasy – part of the sell, alongside all the glamour, is that it relieves you of all effort.

Presumably the big bicycle manufacturers like Specialized or Giant are content with their marketing strategies.  After all, bicycles are sold by the million every year, even if most end up gathering dust in a shed and eventually make their way to the dump.  But I can’t help thinking that selling mid-priced but quality practical bicycles – Pashley springs to mind – off the back of that smell of success, in the City but also in the Media and any number of other professions, and with the glamour of a Kelly Brook or a Vicky Pendleton, might get more people not only to buy sensible bikes, but also to use them.

Then all we have to do is sort out the roads they will have to cycle on!