Eric in an ideological Pickle over parking

I was interested to read about Eric Pickles’ statement about local authorities and car parking charges on the recently resurrected Crap Waltham Forest blog.

Councils will have to declare the total paid by drivers to park in both on-street and off-street bays, after new government figures showed local authorities’ total income from parking hitting £1.27 billion last year. 

Ministers believe the new “transparency” drive is vital to ensure local politicians can be properly held to account by motorists – and to help reverse the decline of the country’s high streets, including the closure of businesses. 

Earlier this year a government report conducted by Mary Portas, the retail expert, identified that high cost of parking as one of the reasons why shoppers were deserting high streets in favour of out-of-town centres where parking is often free. 

Mr Pickles said: “We are ending an era of bureaucratic accountability and replacing it with a more open era of democratic accountability. It is right that taxpayers get to see how town halls spend their hard earned taxes so they can properly hold local politicians to account. 

“As part of that we will expose a great council cash cow cover-up, unmasking punitive parking practices that hit residents in the pocket. We’re calling time on the billion pound local war against motorists – now, more than ever, we need to see the back of this shopping tax and encourage more people onto the high street.” 

Town halls are supposed to control parking to improve traffic flow and stop gridlock occurring, and they are prohibited by law from using their powers in this area simply to boost their income. However, ministers and their advisers believe a growing number of councils seek to get round these rules by earmarking the cash raised for other transport projects.

Mr Pickles, the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to be suggesting that it is wrong for councils to charge for car parking on their sites at rates which allow them to turn a profit and that these rates should therefore be reduced.

This statement confused me immensely for several reasons. Firstly, as Conservative minister, should Mr Pickles not believe that it is wrong for local authorities to use their position to offer parking facilities at prices with which the private sector could never compete? Surely the idea of government crowding out the private sector when it comes to the provision of car parking facilities if at odds with the Conservative ideology. Naturally, the first step in remedying this would be for local authorities to increase their parking charges to allow the more dynamic and efficient private sector to step in.

Secondly, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, surely Mr Pickles should be aware that accommodating to many private motor vehicles in town centres contributes to their downfall. Shopkeepers grossly overestimate the amount of their customers who arrive by car, falling to see that, in town centres, pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users are usually better customers.

Thirdly, providing subsidised parking in town centres tends to damage town centres by excluding those who wish to, or have no other option than to arrive by different modes of travel. The town centre of my native Rochdale is a good example of this; surrounded on three sides by dual carriageways Rochdale’s local authority has done everything possible to accommodate private motor vehicles in the centre of town. The result of this is that the centre of Rochdale us barely accessible by non-motorised means. The tragedy of Rochdale is that even though it’s local authority sacrificed the safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists to benefit motorists, it has not produced an otherwise-successful town centre. It is no coincidence that Rochdale has one of the highest levels of unoccupied shop units, with even McDonalds giving up on it. Successful town and city centres rely on a concentrating a large number of people in a relatively small area and put simply this is never going to be compatible with the car. Once people have been coerced onto using the car, it is a trivial matter to go somewhere which seems less of a hell-hole, such as the Trafford Centre. At least they have a McDonalds. 

Fourthly is Eric Pickles’ pet project, localism;

The Localism Bill will herald a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control and starting a new era of people power.

 

“It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre – and look where it’s got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best.

 

By getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth – and build a stronger, fairer Britain. It’s the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society.”

Somehow this seems slightly at odd with central government interfering with councils’ running of their car parking operations.

Finally (and building upon point three) is choice. Twenty-five per cent of households don’t have access to a car. Many of these people are hard-working strivers who want to be better off and so do without a car, at least for the foreseeable future. It is simply not possible to further accommodate private motor vehicles in our town centres without further diminishing the experience of those travelling by other modes. Should people not be able to choose how they travel? It seems at odds with Conservative values to subsidise one mode of transport far above all others, as it coerces people into acquiring the means to travel in that manner, and to use it for almost all trips. Is influencing transport choice in this way not the very opposite of the choice which is so valued by Conservatives? Surely the right thing to do would be to treat all modes of transport equally (perhaps with the advantages and disadvantages of each taken onto account) in order to give people back the choice of how to travel. Since motor transport has seen decades of generous government subsidy, it would make sense to start with massive investments in walking and cycling infrastructure.

Unless I’m reading too much into this, and it is actually just a cynical exercise in which our Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government panders to the myth of the victimised motorist to boost his popularity.

TfGM’s Oxford Road corridor changes risk the lives of cyclists

The forthcoming Oxford Road bus corridor in Manchester is to be accompanied by a series of changes to the surrounding roads, including Upper Brook Street and Upper Lloyd Street. In their current form, the changes offer pitifully little for pedestrians and are potentially lethal for cyclists. In a consultation found here, the proposed changes to the layouts of these roads can be seen in detailed the detailed plans found here.

The specific details of what will be offered for cyclists on the relatively short section of Oxford Road from which general motor traffic is to be excluded will not be shared in any detail until 2013. This makes the current consultation relatively useless as we are prevented from seeing what may or may not be gained in exchange for the significant reduction in cyclists’ safety on the surrounding roads. Even in the unlikely event that both the short section of Oxford Road from which private motor vehicles are to be excluded from, and the remainder of this important route are to be brought up to something resembling Dutch standards, as unlikely as this would be, this does not excuse the significant increase in danger posed by the redesign of the surrounding roads, which cyclists would still have to use.

Here we see where Upper Brook Street meets Grosvenor Street. The protected contra-flow cycle lane on Grosvenor street, whilst not perfect was a welcome step in the right direction. Sadly the hideously botched Toucan crossing solution for cyclists where Grosvenor Street looks set to remain. A missed opportunity to make this unfinished bit of infrastructure, still one of the most notable in Manchester, into something genuinely fit for purpose.

Under the present layout, this is a far North as traffic can travel into the city, however the proposals will make Upper Brook Street two way as far as Portland Street for the first time in decades. Truly a step in the wrong direction.

Plymouth Grove is to have advisory cycle lanes added to it for possibly as much as 100 metres southbound. As risible as this is, the bigger issue is that the motorway sliproad geometry where Plymouth Grove peels off from Upper Brook Street remains, placing cyclists continuing along Upper Brook Street in completely avoidable danger of a left-hook.

In a show of contempt for both cyclists and pedestrians, this overly-wide section of road is to have its southbound pavement converted into shared use between Plymouth grove and Grafton Street. From this point southwards, Upper Brook Street is to have one additional lane squeezed into the existing space. This extra lane it switches use to the opposite direction of traffic roughly every signalised junction. I used to live near here and I couldn’t count the number of dangerously close overtakes I endured using the current two-lane arrangement. This area also sees a great deal of pedestrian traffic due to the hospital and University, yet the proposed changes (or rather lack of improvements to existing dire facilities such as crossings) show a complete disregard for the needs and convenience of pedestrians. 

As the extra motor vehicle lanes South of this point are not continuous in one direction, it will not create any extra vehicle capacity, instead encouraging motorists to dangerously speed through the sections where the road is two lanes before forming a jam immediately after the lights where two lanes are forced to merge back into one. This unnecessary extra merging will simply result in additional collisions between cars without providing any time benefit to motorists, whilst the additional lane will necessitate lane narrowing which will bring cars and cycles into conflict, making an increase in the number of injuries and fatalities an inevitability should the proposed designs be implemented. TfGM’s designs for this section of Upper Brook Street in particular will force cyclists and motor vehicles into even closer conflict. I have little doubt that, if implemented, these designs will lead to the deaths of cyclists.

Despite Upper Brook Street seeing significant amounts of pedestrian traffic, the proposal does nothing to facilitate this whatsoever, with existing anti-pedestrian junction geometries and multi-stage crossings requiring pedestrians to deviate repeatedly from desire lines remaining in place. Where additional crossing are to be provided, such as at Brunswick Street, pedestrians are treated with contempt; forced to cross via a ludicrous number of stages so as not to inconvenience motorists coming onto Upper Brook Street from popular residential rat-runs. Cyclists and pedestrians are to be brought into conflict between Plymouth Grove and Grafton Street by the lazy conversion of the inappropriate-width footway to ‘shared use’ in order to allow an unjustifiable three-lane stack at the junction between Upper Brook Street and Grafton Street. This junction, separating the Manchester Royal Infirmary, blood bank, flats and the University of Manchester Medical School sees a significant amount of foot traffic, making the atrocious treatment of pedestrians by the proposed design at this point inexcusable.

The proposed changes to Upper Brook Street in particular represent a potentially lethal attempt to squeeze ever more private cars into the same amount of space. In addition to the increase in fatalities and injuries, many cyclists will be intimidated off these roads entirely, either continuing to cycle but on the pavement, causing problems for pedestrians, or switching to another, less desirable mode of transport. Where cycle infrastructure is proposed, such as Booth Street West and Higher Cambridge Street, it is of the same kind which has been shown time and time again to fail to meet the needs of cyclists for both safety and convenience; advisory cycle lanes and ASLs. Advisory cycle lanes are generally less than useless, they are frequently blocked by legally parked cars and routinely abandon their users at junctions, anywhere where the road design becomes confusing or complex or where the road starts to narrow and cyclists might genuinely need some additional protection from the motor vehicles which have been brought into close proximity with them. In the few places where cycle infrastructure is proposed in the current designs they are simply paint on the carriageway or lazy footway ‘conversions’. At junctions, turning geometries are not tightened up at all (as is commonplace in The Netherlands and Denmark) meaning left turning vehicles can perform turns at higher speeds, increasing the chances of a ‘left-hook’ collision with a cyclist, which are often fatal for the cyclist.

In addition to the problems caused for pedestrians by ill-conceived shard use paths as between Plymouth Grove and Grafton Street and the risk of overall increased pavement cycling, the few additional measures included supposedly to benefit pedestrians have been done in a manner which shows utter contempt for the value of pedestrians’ time and the quality of their experience of walking. The increase number of vehicle lanes will increase noise and pollution endured by pedestrians, cyclists and residents, which make the already formidable barrier presented by the road even more difficult for pedestrians to overcome.

These designs need to be changed as a matter of urgency. In their current form they represent a disaster waiting to happen.

In appreciation of Andrew Mitchell

Until a few days ago, I had no idea that Andrew Mitchell, the chief whip of the Conservative Party, rode a bike. I imagine that his experience of cycling is much the same as it is for anyone, involving a significant amount of pretending that, rather than riding a bike, you are in fact driving a car.

‘Pretend you’re a car’ is a pretty good description of the UK cycling experience, but not perfect. Whilst cyclists are expected to ride on (and pay for) roads designed exclusively around the requirements and limitations of motor vehicle traffic, expected to accept all the same responsibilities as operators of motor vehicles and obey rules, signs and traffic signals which exist in their current form (or in their entirety) because of motor vehicles, cyclists are routinely pilloried when they break the same rules which motorists routinely enjoy having a blind eye turned to, such as travelling on pavements & ignoring traffic signals.

Even when cyclists manage not to fall foul of this system and pull off a sufficiently convincing car impression, under certain circumstances, they may then find themselves taking flak for failing to pretend to be a pedestrian.

Andrew Mitchell may not have intended to become a martyr, he may even have just been a man who, after being forced to put on his best car impression just to go about his business, simply snapped when Police officers didn’t understand why he wanted them to open the huge motor vehicle security gate at Downing Street. Many people won’t understand the pressures which come with being forced to pretend you are something you are not, or may feel that his outburst was inappropriate. However, for highlighting the desperate need for a fair deal for cyclists, for dedicated infrastructure for cyclists here in the UK; Andrew Mitchell, I salute you.

Partition is a panacea

The title for this piece is borrowed from an old article whose author creates a straw man to argue against pro-infrastructure views. The title of that piece came to mind again recently when reading reports in June of the UKs worse-than-expected quarterly growth. This was also around the same time that the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain wrote an open letter to Nick Clegg urging for some of the infrastructure investment being discussed at the time be directed to provide Dutch-quality cycle infrastructure. The title of that particular old post came to mind because the failure of austerity policies in reviving the British economy has been leading to ever louder calls for a different, more Keynesian approach; in addition to the many proven benefits which come from actually having dedicated cycle infrastructure, right now we stand to benefit from significant wider societal effects from the process of actually buying this infrastructure too.

At a time when unemployment (particularly of the young) is staggeringly high, imagine the benefits of a project as grand in scale as finally making Britain’s roads fit for purpose, for all users, regardless of transport mode. As many of the detractors of cycle infrastructure are quick to say, reconfiguring our entire road network to something resembling that of The Netherlands is a big and expensive job. However, right now this should be seen as an opportunity in itself; we have a huge number of young (and plenty who are not so young) people who are desperate for work and who are on the verge of becoming a lost generation if they do not do so.

A project to reconfigure the entire nation’s road network would create a huge number of jobs, in every corner of the UK. Those new to the world of work would be given a chance to learn a trade and earn a wage; the jobs wouldn’t just be limited to obvious areas such as construction, a huge amount of design, planning and legal work (to name a few) would also be required. Such a project must be handled correctly, through publicly-owned enterprises paying a living wage, rather than private contractors whose ‘cost savings’ are typically provided by driving down wages, which subsequently have to be topped up with tax credits, housing benefit, council tax benefit and so on, negating any real savings to the public purse. Even worse would be to finance it through private finance initiatives.

The knock on effects of boosting employment this manner are obvious and the same as for other big infrastructure projects. However, unlike other many other infrastructure projects such as traditional roadbuilding or motorway construction, once built cycle infrastructure actually pays dividends. Reduced healthcare spending, reduced congestion and its associated costs, increased employee productivity, increased wellbeing of citizens to name but a few, the benefits of high-quality cycle infrastructure are well-studied and broad. Added to the significant economic benefits we could reap from merely building cycle infrastructure, it really does start to look like a panacea.

Westminster Road Bridge

There are a few bits of interesting infrastructure in Chester, nothing joined up of course. One of the more creative bits of traffic engineering is the bridge over the railway on Westminster Road. The parallel Hoole Way/Road bridge is a complete nightmare as it occurs at the same point as the road narrows from two lanes to one, resulting in an impenetrable, never-ending procession of cars for most of the day. In order to minimise rat-running, Westminster Road has been made one-way, allowing passage from Chester into Hoole but not vice versa. A series of one way streets in Hoole itself further helps to minimise rat-running.

The good news is that the traffic engineers behind this Westminster Road bridge (possibly influenced by Cycling England’s Cycling Demonstration Town project) have realised that whilst motor traffic needs to be restricted in this way to prevent the surrounding area from suffering, cycle traffic does not. Westminster Road bridge is traffic light controlled, when a cycle approaches from the Hoole side, induction loops in the ground (or a push button if that fails) detect the bike and the traffic light quickly changes to green for the cyclist. It is my hope that the one-way system in the surrounding area will be amended to allow cycling the ‘wrong’ way now that the regulations have been changed to make this easier.

Whilst the quality of the cycle path up to the stop line certainly leaves a lot to be desired, being able to avoid Hoole Way/Road when on a bike makes this intervention very much welcome. When heading towards the city centre from here, the unwelcome and unnecessary barrier provided by the inner ring road can at least be bypassed using the Shropshire Union canal tow-path.

Update: Nice to see the local Rozzers have a lot respect for this cycling facility

Dutch pick-and-mix

There’s more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycling lane was a recent piece written by Matthew Wright for the Guardian. The title is a valid statement, Dutch levels of cycling didn’t come about just from building cycle tracks along busy main roads, it requires that the private car is tamed on streets and lanes, so that a cycle track is unnecessary. However, the article quickly falls into that peculiar trapping which appears to be unique to the English-speaking world; Dutch pick-and-mix.
Dutch pick-and-mix (a term I hope will catch-on) is the idea that picking and choosing randomly from all of the the pro-cycling measures employed by the Dutch (other than building cycle tracks alongside roads) can result in Dutch-levels of cycling. Dutch pick-and-mix is attractive to people who are ideologically opposed to the idea of any separation of cyclists and motor traffic; Matthew Wright’s choice, upon visiting The Netherlands, to ride on the main carriageway and shun the far superior adjacent cycle-only facility is a particularly informative one. By avoiding the cycle track-shaped elephant in the room, Dutch pick-and-mix offers campaigners and local authorities the easy way out; rather than making the main roads accessible to all cyclists by installing cycle tracks, a few blue signs can be used to direct cyclists via circuitous residential streets. Rather than addressing lethal junction designs, the roads in adjacent residential areas can have ’20’ painted onto them within a circle.
Whilst these measures are not a bad thing, they are completely, totally and utterly worthless if cyclists can’t use the roads which get them to the places they need to go; main roads. Dutch pick-and-mix fails as an approach not because there is a problem with lower residential speed limits and facilitating cycling on minor roads, these are good things, but because they don’t work unless they are built on a foundation of cycle tracks running alongside main roads. There is little point in creating an island of cycling paradise within a residential area if the main road connecting it to the next island of cycling paradise remains unchanged and hostile to cyclists. The Dutch pick-and-mix approach epitomised by ‘There’s more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycling lanemisses this point; there is more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycle lane, but without the main road network being fixed by the addition of separate cycle lanes, the rest of the measures used by the Dutch simply won’t work. Separate cycle lanes are the very foundation of going Dutch, whilst attempting to build something without first laying the foundations is pretty much what we’ve been doing in the UK for fifty years, an approach which has done little for anyone who wants to get around by bike.
In addition to a severe case of Dutch pick-and-mix, Matthew Wright’s article also falls foul of cherry-picking through the referencing of John Franklin’s page of cherry-picked research, which has been dissected here previously and rendered irrelevant by a much more honest and up-to-date equivalent started here.
Whilst it is true that separate cycle lanes are not the only measure involved in ‘going Dutch,’ suggesting that they are anything less than the very foundation of it is at best extremely naive and at worst shockingly dishonest. Articles such as ‘There’s more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycling lanesimply serve to spread the disinformation which has held back cycling in this country for decades. A Dutch pick-and-mix approach might seem appealing, because it is comparably easy, but without the foundation of separate cycle lanes on the worst parts of the road network, it can only be expected to deliver a continuation of the flat-lining of cycle rates and a continuation of the stream of avoidable deaths on our roads.

Segregation Myths #3: If we build segregated cycle infrastructure we’ll be banned from the roads

One of cycling’s great bogeymen is the fear that a cycling ban is imminent and that anything which rocks the boat, such as asking for high-quality segregated infrastructure, will result in our being banned from the highway. To quote cycling journalist Carlton Reid:
However, I feel that this outlook is overlooking several important points:
Firstly, councils have been building sub-standard infrastructure for years, infrastructure which more often serves as an outlet for dadaism than as a facility for cyclists. Whilst there is not legal requirement for cyclists to use it, in many cases cyclists who shun sub-standard infrastructure are subjected to abuse and intimidation from motorists who are ignorant of the problems with such sub-standard infrastructure. This continues to be built despite it often not effectively catering for cyclists’ needs whatsoever.
Secondly, much of the main-road network has been for many years designed to prioritise high volumes of motor traffic travelling at high speeds. This is particularly evident on inter-town and inter-city A roads and dual carriageways, where a nominal speed limit of 50 mph or higher is routinely flouted by motorists, and on “urban motorways,” such as The Bridgewater Way in Manchester. Whilst there is currently no de jure cycling ban on roads like these, there is a de facto ban on cycling; most people, including people who regard themselves as cyclists do not feel safe enough to cycle on these roads. I suspect that the fact that cycles are legally permitted on these roads provides little comfort to those who are prevented from doing so by the perceived lack of safety offered to cyclists who use these roads. A high-quality segregated cycle lane, with appropriate priority at junctions and side roads, will make these roads feasible for use by bike, for the average person once again.
The issue of quality brings my to my third point; if cycle paths are built to an appropriately-high standard then cyclists will choose to use them over the main carriageway without the need for legislation to make it mandatory.  A common misconception about pro-segregationists is that we want cycle paths on every street. This would obviously be ludicrous; what is needed is segregation which “scales-up” with the speed and volume of motor traffic carried by the main carriageway. The degree of separation needed would vary from none on quiet residential and access roads carrying low volumes of traffic up to a completely separate path on fast-inter-city A-roads and “urban motorways,” (the roads from which most cyclists are already excluded from by a de facto ban). The degree of separation required would be specified by set of Separation Principles, similar to The Netherlands and Denmark, in place of our current (failed) Hierarchy of Provision. Because of this, some on-road cycling will always be inevitable, so there wouldn’t be an issue of a blanket ban on cycling on the road.
My final point is something perhaps unique to Britain. As a long-established country, with an uncodified constitution due to a political system which evolved over time rather than being suddenly brought into existence by revolutionary means. For example, unlike many other countries, there is no jaywalking law here, and pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders have the right to use the road by statute. There are a few examples of other transport modes being provided with infrastructure for their exclusive use; pedestrians and buses (strictly for the sole use of buses, cycles and taxis). Pedestrian infrastructure; The pavement, is a long established part of our road network. Despite the extensive infrastructure which has been provided for pedestrians in the UK, pedestrians have yet to be banned from using the main carriageway. Few choose to exercise their right (similar to cyclists with respect to their right to use fast A roads) to walk on the main carriageway due to the more attractive option offered to them in the form of the pavement, but it remains their right to do so if they choose. Bus lanes have proved to be a very successful tool to reduce peak road capacity (and hence ease congestion), whilst making bus travel more competitive with personal motor travel at peak times (although the arguments in favour of allowing taxis to use them are poor at best). Similarly, where “Bus lanes” do exist, their use by the operators of buses, taxis and cycles is not mandatory.