17 March 2013

A letter to my councillors

My planned blog about cycle advocacy strategies has been hijacked by computer malfunction and the need to write to my councillors.  So I'm taking a leaf out of Dave McCraw's book, and posting my letter here (but do read Dave's too): 

I understand that the Council is taking several important decisions in the next few days and weeks that will very much affect transport and cycling in Edinburgh. As you know, I think the council's made some amazing strides forward in recent years and that we are moving in the right direction.  Indeed, I had a message on facebook only this morning from an old friend in Canada, who was absolutely flabbergasted when he heard that Edinburgh was committing 6% of its transport budget to cycling.  He's trying to convince his city to commit 1% and not getting
very far. So, I know you're doing something right!

Nonetheless, I do wish to emphasize how important it is that any  major shifts in Edinburgh get things right this time, and not require further tinkering and costly remedial adjustments.  In particular, this relates to both Princes Street and Leith walk.  We have a real opportunity here, and it matters that we get it right, if we are to enable cycling  in Edinburgh, with all the concomitant benefits - including for businesses.

I understand that the current plan for the redesign of Princes St and George St basically treats cyclists like cars, but provides some extra segregation on George Street. While the segregated path is obviously beneficial, banning cycles from Princes Street eastwards is really retrograde.  This is not how Copenhagen or any other city has supported and encouraged cycling.  Instead, what we see is the widespread and extensive provision of cycling contraflows, of two way segregated paths, and/or cycling encouraged in pedestrianized areas.  Cyclists are not drivers - they are mobile shoppers who will stop at markets, browse stalls, and pop into cafes.  We want to encourage this, not erect 'no cycling' signs right outside Waverley as a greeting to arriving tourists!

It is thus vitally important that the 'steer' the Transport Cttee gives to the proposed plan is one which emphasizes the importance of making cyclists and pedestrians welcome in the city centre. I used to cycle
down to Princes street a lot for shopping and I look forward to being able to do so again.  But I am convinced that the future of the city centre depends on making this easy, safe, and fun to do, not by restricting access unnecessarily.

I understand that the Transport Cttee is also considering the proposals for Leith Walk.  I have contacted you on this before, and have made my input through the consultation process.  I would simply add at this point, that if we are really serious about making Edinburgh a cycling city, Leith Walk is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. It is one of the scariest roads in the city to cycle on, and not very pleasant to walk either (as I did for 5 years), but it has such potential, both in terms of its width and the wonderful shops and neighborhoods.  Again, let's remember all the research indicating how shops and restaurants elsewhere have benefitted financially once
segregated cycle paths were installed.  And remember also that as in London, a remarkably high proportion of residents in and around Leith Walk, are not car owners.  Whether they choose to walk, cycle or bus, these residents will benefit from cyclepaths beside the footpaths.

I'm sure you've  read the London vision for cycling - and compared it to ATAP.  Edinburgh gets mentioned rightly for its financial commitment to cycing, but let's make sure that we spend that money wisely on good quality infrastructure (which is not necessarily expensive infrastructure), rather than risk another farce like the QBC.  While retrofitting infrastructure can be expensive, the Leith Walk proposals are an amazing opportunity to move forward and integrate cycling into our travel plans, in a way that we have rarely been able to do.

Apologies for this long message.  Please don't feel you need to reply, but I do hope you will bear these points in mind when you and your respective parties make decisions, and especially in consultation with your colleagues who sit on the Transport Committee.

All best wishes,

09 March 2013

What's so bad about the QBC?

London's announcement seems to have rekindled the debate (on forums, blogs, twitter and even in the comments on my last blog post) about the so-called Quality Bike Corridor (QBC) which runs through south Edinburgh. It's been touted as a great improvement, and much money was spent on it. But since it opened the outcry has been loud and sustained. Even the council leader has weighed in, rather critically in fact.

It has also amplified divisions - or at least articulated them - between Spokes, the doughty cycle campaigners, and a variety of other voices. After reading some of the exchanges, you'd be forgiven for thinking that we were all at each other's throats. That's not really the case - we all respect Spokes' dogged persistence and reliable data.  Many things have happened for the better in Edinburgh because of Spoke's interventions, despite being run on a shoestring of a budget, and entirely based on volunteers.

The basic position though, is that while pretty much everyone agrees that the QBC is simply not good enough to get kids etc cycling safely, Spokes argues that their data suggests it may have nonetheless increased cycling levels, and hence is still a good thing, if less good than it could be.  Others suggest that it is a total waste of money.

I'm not totally convinced that the QBC explains the cycling data, but it may be that Spokes is right that the QBC by virtue of its presence, and the publicity given to it, has enabled some cyclists.

The problem though is that the QBC ought to be the most basic level of cycle infrastructure - the lowest common denominator - while it is being touted as an improvement.  In fact, given that part of the QBC doesn't even have an on-road lane painted on it, it might not merit even that. But, it doesn't have parking bays painted on top of the lane. There are some restrictions on stopping and loading.  Both of those make it better than many other cycle lanes in Edinburgh. But that's not saying much.

Several years ago, at my first foray into bike campaigning, I challenged the then transport convener about the bike lanes that had parking bays on them.  He admitted that they were less than optimal and said that Council policy had changed and that they would no longer build cycle lanes with metered bays on top. The QBC is clearly the outcome of that policy.

Rather than saying - 'Look at the QBC, it's so great!'  maybe we should be saying 'the QBC's a bit better than the lanes elsewhere in the city, but it's not good enough'.

As others have said, it may provide some sort of support for determined/experienced cyclists, but it is not the sort of infrastructure that will get more 'timid' cyclists out, and keep them on their bikes - and that's what we need, and what the Council needs to invest in.  Let's not aim for the LCD any more.

What's the difference between London & Edinburgh?

Reading Boris' vision for cycling in London was a revelation.  Not because I believe it will all happen, or that funding's in place for it all, but because the tone was so different from what we have heard and seen elsewhere.  Edinburgh's put its money where its mouth is and committed 6% of the transport budget - capital and recurrent - to cycling.  And we've already seen the effect of this - particularly in the gritted cycle paths that made such a difference this year.

But Boris' vision simply felt different.  My husband described it as a 'wishlist' for cyclists. But it wasn't just that they bodged in all sorts of good stuff.  Rather, it felt joined-up as a policy.  Not just a tick-list but thinking about what was needed.  I have blogged before about the need to integrate cyclists into urban planning - this plan feels like it really does that, with a commitment to a properly funded junction review, redesign of town centres, and  revising design standards.  While the Scottish CAPS foregrounds 'training', the London vision sees it as merely an add-on to other important aspects of the scheme. We've asked for infrastructure to be joined up, but here not only is infrastructure joined up, but so is the policy.

Despite all that good stuff, the real difference in the London plan to Edinburgh's ATAP was one of tone, and that tone is at least in part a reflection of one important difference.  In London, it is accepted that the most efficient way to get somewhere is not necessarily a private motor vehicle.  And car-parking does not seem to be taken as the same sort of 'right' by residents - or at least that's how the local press portrays it.  I've seen so many more cyclists around - especially lots with child seats, that I think this is changing, but it's not reflected in our public discourse, or in our policy formulation.

London planners and politicians are starting from a different place, emotionally and strategically.  The census data in London showed very clearly that car ownership and use has fallen dramatically in recent years across all demographics and political orientations. Add to that, London's over-used and overcrowded public transport system - again used by every variety of commuter.  Boris' vision is compelling because he sells it as something that is good for everyone - this is a win-win policy.

A lot has been made of the role of cycle bloggers in pushing policy change.  But the other big difference between Edinburgh and London is that in London, the local media is on-board.  In Edinburgh, the politicians continue to run scared of the local media, which - with very few exceptions - is heavily pro-car and loves to bash the council.

I don't think these differences are unsurmountable, but the Council and its officials need to get their heads around the idea that Active Travel can be a 'vote-winner' (as I heard the Deputy Transport Convenor say recently), and, as residents, readers and consumers, we need to make sure that the incremental changes in how we travel are reflected in policy-making and public debates.

01 March 2013

What does it take to make cyclists happy?

What does it take to make cyclists happy?

Dropped kerbs.
Photo courtesy of chdot via flickr


You think that sounds silly?  On the one hand, I agree with you. With fatalities from crashes and obesity epidemics, you'd be right to think that we need to think big about safety and supporting novice cyclists.  And that's going on too (keep Sunday 19th of May clear in your diaries).

But sometimes the smallest victories are the sweetest. And this week, a dropped kerb that I've written many emails and tweets about was finally installed.

It may not look like much, but it is one of the main access points to Harrison Park and the Union canal towpath.  This means that hundreds of commuters and leisure cyclists use it everyday.  And, anyone who's tried to get a bike with a childseat, tagalong, or trailer up (or down) a dropped kerb, knows just how much harder that is.

The depressing thing is that this bit of kerb had actually been dug up and replaced a year or so ago, well after this kerb was supposed to be on a list of planned improvements in the area.  Like the pothole patching I blogged about earlier in the year, it is just such a waste.

More pics in my flickr stream 
And its not like this is the only one. At the top of Middle Meadow Walk -- probably the most used cyclepath in Edinburgh -- a dropped kerb disappeared when roadworks were done.  It was reinstated earlier in the year, which made us very happy, except that the path markings continued to push pedestrians and cyclists into confrontation.  But finally, amid much celebration, the signage has been much improved.

So we're talking not just about small things making us happy, but retro-active things, which ought to have been unnecessary.

Is this wrong? Ought we to be more focussed on the big picture? Getting policies in place? Yes.  that's important too.  But there's a case to be made for incremental change too. And a quiet satisfaction in getting it done right.

Now, we just need to get that cycle counter installed on Middle Meadow Walk....