Wednesday 22 October 2014

True lies

Yesterday’s (21 October) edition of the London  Evening Standard newspaper displayed an element of the schizophrenia which seems to have overtaken it on the issue of cycling and the Mayor’s proposals for a North-South and an East-West “superhighway”, the latter being dubbed “Crossrail for Bikes” in the media.

On Page 6 of the West End Final edition is this article, under the byline of Matthew Beard, Transport Correspondent.

Spot the footnote, directing you to the editorial comment on page 14:

So, as a corporate policy, the Standard has evidently decided to come out in favour of the proposals.  Good for them, I’m pleased to see it.  They join the ranks of many large companies and public sector bodies including NHS trusts, Universities etc which have so far voiced their support.  They have also reported on this corporate support, and most tellingly they have recently reported the findings of a professional polling organisation, Yougov, to the effect that the superhighways have substantial majority support among Londoners of all classes, races, gender, political leanings and ages.

So there has been some positive and supportive coverage.  There has, of course, also been some comment or readers’ letters which indicate a spectrum of opinion, and it would be remiss of the Standard not to reflect this, although I do suspect that the Letters Editor was revealing a fine sense of irony in choosing this one:


There is evidently some divergence of opinion among the Standard’s staff journalists on this matter though:  Mentions in Dispatches should go in particular to Ross Lydall, but also to his colleagues Andrew Neather (@HerneHillAndy), Rosamund Urwin and others.  On the other hand, there is Matthew Beard, transport correspondent.  His reporting on the proposals has been relentlessly negative.

An earlier example is this, from a month ago:

Note the headline – car journeys to take 16 minutes longer.  No mention that this is a maximum in very isolated circumstances.  The body copy makes no mention anywhere that the average delays are very considerably less than this, or that in fact there will be a few instances where journey times actually reduce.  It makes no mention of the fact that the estimates take no account of the positive effects on congestion which might be expected from any increased uptake in cycling by individuals who might previously have driven.

In other pieces, he has reported, apparently uncritically, claims and assertions made in a shadowy “Press Briefing” which I understand Canary Wharf Group has finally admitted to being behind.  This document is loaded with unevidenced assertions, exaggerations, and some downright lies.  Most of them are such daft and transparent fakes that no kid preparing a GCSE geography project, let alone an informed adult journalist, could really take them seriously

And now Beard is expounding on the City’s threat to block the proposals.  Up to a point, this is true:  there is indeed a report which states that the proposals are heavily biased towards cycling.  It does indeed contain an explicit threat, in noting that the routes would partly occupy streets under the City’s, as opposed to TfL’s management – Castle Baynard Street would be made access-only for motor vehicles and shared with the superhighway to bypass Upper Thames Street.  In my view the report is highly partisan and highlights the few cases where pedestrians may be disadvantaged while glossing over the many where they are substantially neutral or indeed better off than before.  Mark Teasure  has analysed their text in some detail here.

But, on the other hand, the report is a bit old.  It was issued as part of the agenda papers for the City’s Planning & Transportation Committee meeting held on October 14th.  The report has been available to the public on the City’s website for at least two weeks now, so it is hardly news, is it?

It is also not the views of the City of London Corporation, as claimed in the article, which are reported here.  Semantic distinction perhaps, but the City of London Corporation is the assembly of elected representatives, Aldermen and Common Council Members.  The report was prepared by their employees, officers in the Planning department.  Reports can be adopted, amended or rejected by the councillors participating in the relevant committee after they have discussed them in committee, normally in front of the public.  While there are many City officials who are sympathetic to cycling – not perhaps gung-ho advocates, but at least balanced and broadly supportive – there are others, especially among its directorate, who are openly hostile, and who behave as though it is they, and not councillors, who run the city.

There may be some element of truth in that. I tend to think of councillors as rather fuddy-duddy but they all have long experience in practising liberal professions (lawyers, accountants, chartered surveyors etc) and the one thing they are assuredly not is stupid.  However as I consider myself to have a first-division educational and professional background and yet my self-confidence somewhat evaporates in the face of expertise which I don’t personally have, I can imagine it is not always easy for them to avoid being blinded by science.

No matter, although I was not there personally, I have heard reports from people who were, that the councillors on the P&T Committee adopted a rather more moderate and conciliatory tone than the report suggests.  They downplayed the threat of non-co-operation, and instead focussed on the detail around matters such as addressing specific concerns about crossing times, in the spirit of aiming to resolve those concerns so that the proposals can be built. That’s hardly the same message at all, is it?

The BBC “Today” presenter John Humphries once said that he approaches any interview with a politician thinking, constantly, as he asks questions and listens to the answers, “Why is this bastard lying to me?”.  In this case, it seems to me that perhaps the tables are turned.

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”.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Foresters Say No??

Update:  I have heard from @forestcyclist that the Department for Transport has refused permission to the NFNPA to use £1.5m of the Cycling Ambition grant on a road-widening scheme and on a private woodland park which is situated four miles outside the forest and would thus aim to reduce cycling in the National park itself, in direct contradiction to the purposes of the grant.  This £1.5m must now be returned (possibly that means it will not be handed over, as I assume the DfT only dishes out the cash against milestone reports on the progress of the projects)

This represents a partial victory for cycle campaigners.  I say "partial" because the total grant was £3.2m and so only half is being recovered.  It seems £1.2m has already been spent and the DfT has approved schemes not yet implemented totalling £500k.  It also rather appears that the money already spent has not been spent to the benefit of cyclists:  refurbishing public lavatories and resurfacing gravel car parks in the forest, on the grounds that cyclists occasionally take a leak and some of them bring their bikes on racks on their cars.  Last time I checked, most cars driving to the forest did not carry bikes, and bladder capacity issues surely afflict all humans of all ages, whether they cycle or not?  Or does all that coffee and cake make them unusually susceptible?

What is a victory in my mind however is that individual campaigners, notably NewForestCyclist and CycleNewForest, aided by like minded individuals (myself included) who have written to the DfT, our MPs, the National Audit Office, the local newspaper etc, have put a stop to an egregious misuse of public funds.

The roles of cycling bodies such as Sustrans and CTC in this is not entirely clear.  The NFNPA gave clear indications that they had "consulted" with these bodies and that they had approved the Rhinefield scheme.  Sustrans and CTC however deny being formally consulted so it is possible that someone from the NFNPA approached a couple of local cycle forum members known to belong to these bodies, got them drunk and tricked them into saying something supportive.

This does not mean that Sustrans and CTC do not have "form" in this area.  They agreed to the expenditure of some £300,000 of Cycle Safety Fund money  on the Bedford "turbo-roundabout" scheme, which was from the very start intended only to reduce collisions between motor vehicles arising from high volumes of traffic entering the roundabout at high speeds.  Cyclists are not supposed to use the roundabout itself - they have been offered shared use of existing footpaths around the perimeter!

What is, in my mind, a victory, is that we have apparently prevented such misuse of funds.  The £1.5m can now be released to be re-applied to another national park (South Downs seems to spend the money more wisely) or to a city scheme.  That is second-best to the schemes intended for the New Forest, but that first choice seems now to be off the table.

Third best, in my mind, would be simply to hand the money back to the Exchequer.  As a taxpayer (like virtually all cyclists, most of whom are probably above-average taxpayers) I would certainly prefer the money not to be spent at all than spent badly, or it could be spent on the NHS or schools instead.

There has been something of a fracas recently in the New Forest National Park Authority.  Last year, the NFNPA, in common with several large cities and  all of the National Park Authorities in the country, were invited to apply for grants under the “Cycling Ambition Fund” for schemes with the objective of facilitating cycling and encouraging cycling as a sustainable form of transport within their areas – within the National Parks in the case of NPAs.

NFNPA was one of about half the NPAs in the country to be successful in applying for a grant, in their case to implement a short-term cycle hire scheme similar to that seen in London and nicknamed “Boris Bikes”.  Under the scheme, bikes could be hired from docking stations around the railway stations in the south east of the forest or in nearby villages or other points of interest, and returned to any of the docking stations where space was available – just like in London.  A contractor had been found to operate the scheme and all was set fair to get started and spend the grant.

Suddenly, in August this year, NFNPA reversed this decision, and abandoned the proposed scheme.  The reversal is explained in a report* here by NFNPA officers to the authority members as being largely because “A Major anti-cycling sentiment has come to the fore in the wake of large-scale cycle sportive events”. 

They have now put forward alternative ways to spend the grant money, known locally as “Plan B”.  This Plan was approved at a meeting of the NFNPA on 25th September, at which the plan was discussed under the agenda item “Any other items the chairman decides are urgent”.

Plan B envisages a number of alternative uses of the grant money.Some would be spent on changing loose gravel surfaces for some forest tracks to compacted gravel surfaces.  The two biggest expenditures however would be £1.275m to upgrade the surfacing at the edges of a road called Rhinefield Road/Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, and £300k for improvements to off-road cycle tracks within the Moors Valley Country Park and Forest – a privately owned (by the Forestry Commission) and operated leisure facility some four miles outside the boundary of the National Park.

I won’t go into detail about the conditions attaching to applications for Cycling Ambition Grants, suffice to say that they are intended to fund proposals to promote cycling as a means of transport within National Parks. The Moors Valley scheme is (a) outside the park and (b) not a transport scheme – it is pure leisure.

Rhinefield Road and the Ornamental Drive are not cycle paths.  They are roads.  For cars. They are also, by and large, little wider than single-track roads with a rough verge outside an uneven boundary line.  When two vehicles meet on these roads, they need to pull over, partly onto the verge, and slow down to let each other pass.  Upgrading these margins amounts to a road widening scheme which will permit vehicles to pass each other without, or with less, such pulling over/slowing down.  The NFNPA has presented this upgrading scheme as being of benefit for cyclists at the same time as it has revealed that its estimates of daily traffic is 139 cyclists and 1,562 cars. (see page 5)* Again, it is hard to square this with the stated objectives of the grant funding, to benefit cyclists and cycling in the National Parks – this apparently all the more so since by unhappy co-incidence a cyclist was seriously injured at almost the same time, by a passing car towing a caravan, whose driver may not have been aware of what (s)he had done, on the very road which the NFNPA wants to resurface “to benefit cyclists”.

All of this is by now old ground, chewed over by other tweeters and bloggers, notably @cyclenewforest and @forestcyclist, here.  What I want to explore is the stated reasons for abandoning “Plan A”, the cycle hire scheme.

The “Task & Finish Group” report referred to above talks about a “major anti-cycling sentiment”, but what is the evidence for this?  No evidence is provided in any public document made available on the NFNPA website.  There is a report on a public consultation (more below) but either the “evidence” is not that, or at any rate it has been wilfully and perversely misinterpreted.  All I can assume is that NFNPA members are expressing their own personal hostility to the scheme as representative of local residents’ feeling (a bit like Eamonn de Valera is reputed to have said that to know what the Irish people wanted he only had to look into his own heart - this from an American citizen who was, as they say in Dublin, “Oirish with a capital O” ) or they have had their ears bent at the bar in the Golf Club or the Conservative Club by those privileged few like minded individuals who have their ear.  Precisely the kind of back-door briefing which Michael Liebriech deplores in relation to the proposed London Superhighways.

So, what evidence, recorded in a scientific way and reported on officially by the officers of the NFNPA, do we have to support the claimed views of local residents?  Well, it is in this report here.*

NFNPA officers report that they sought the views of local communities, through various means including an on-line survey, leaflets, drop-in sessions and attendance at the New Forest Show.  It cannot be definitively said that the responses were representative – at least some of them were self-selecting through completing the online survey or sending in written questionnaire answers, and there doesn’t appear to have been much in the way of demographic information captured to normalise to the overall New Forest demographic, as would have been the case in a typical Gallup opinion poll.  However, nothing any more representative has been cited, by the officers, members or indeed anyone else.

They report that they received 139 responses.  It could be argued that this is not many respondents, but the small number does not itself make it unrepresentative – a typical Gallup or Populus opinion poll of voting intentions across the entire UK would have a sample of 1,000 respondents, in an electorate exceeding 40 million.  An even smaller sample size than we have here.  It is still representative, you just have to allow for a wider margin of error – still only a few percentage points though.

Their conclusion is as follows:

They talk of “least support” in the area closest to the location of the scheme.  Nowhere do they state or even imply hostility, or a balance of opposition overall.  Indeed they talk in positive terms of who the scheme is considered by respondents to be “most useful” to.

Drilling further into the data, first up is the views of Lyndhurst/Brockenhurst residents (ie closest to the scheme) then other Forest residents, as to who the scheme would be most useful to, among residents, businesses, and visitors. 1 indicates strongly disagree and 5 strongly agree. 2 and 4 are mildly, and 3 is neutral.


It can be seen that residents of the immediate scheme area by and large did not think that the scheme would be useful to themselves, or to businesses but they clearly considered that they would be useful to visitors.  Other Forest residents were somewhat more evenly divided as to whether they saw benefit to themselves or local businesses, but again it is abundantly clear that they saw benefits to visitors.  Visitors, unsurprisingly, saw great benefit to themselves, and to some extent to local businesses:  they were clearly not asked about residents.

Next, whether respondents were against, or in favour, of the scheme.  Again, 1 indicates strongly against and 5 strongly in favour.  2 and 4 are mildly, 3 is neutral.

It’s clear that opinion is fairly polarised.  Few respondents express a neutral view or no opinion.  Many are clearly hostile.  However, it is also clear that a sizeable minority of residents in the immediate area of the scheme are strongly in favour, as are a significant majority of other Forest residents.  Unsurprisingly, visitors overwhelmingly support the scheme. 

The remaining pages of the report consider the question whether respondents would like a docking station near them.  The responses mirror the support/opposition in the previous question.  Finally there is some analysis of narrative comments in support or objection.  This is interesting. The report draws out primarily two objection themes:  the money could be better spent elsewhere, and “too many cyclists already in the forest”.  However this last point, which appears to have influenced the final decision more than perhaps any other, is actually only expressed by a small handful of respondents, 7 out of 139.

All of this, in my view, explodes the myth that Forest residents are opposed to the scheme, on any grounds.  Even if they did, so what?  The New Forest National Park is, as its name implies, a National asset.  The NFNPA as a body has National responsibilities and is provided with National grant funding to help them discharge those responsibilities.  Residents' views cannot be ignored but they cannot be allowed a veto.

The NFNPA is a body of members drawn from the various local government bodies covering the area of the forest.  Many of them are district or parish councillors.  Clearly they are acting as though they were parish councillors when they manage the National Park.  They need to learn to stop.

* Note:   where I have linked to a NFNPA document, I have first coded a link to the document on the NFNPA website, and secondly to a copy stored as an open item on my own Google Drive page – just in case the NFNPA finds it incumbent on itself to remove the documents from public view!