23 February 2011

Joining the Dots

“Personalised Travel Planning (PTP) seeks to challenge habitual use of the car, enabling more journeys to be made on foot, bike, bus, train or in shared cars. This is achieved through the provision of information, incentives, and motivation directly to individuals to help them voluntarily make more informed travel choices. PTP forms an important part of national, regional and local transport policy contributing to the suite of tools promoted under the general heading of Smarter Choices.”
I noted this news story recently from WAG, which heralds the award of a contract to Sustrans for rolling out a programme of personalised travel planning, helping people make more informed decisions about their regular journeys. I think this is a brilliant idea – my favourite public transport factoid is that when people who don’t use buses are asked about their local bus services, they don’t rate them highly, but when people who do use the buses are asked the same question, they tend to think there is a good service. So opening up people’s minds to alternatives seems like a sensible way to achieve modal shift.

I do worry however that when it comes to encouraging cycling, this travel planning exercise will fail to achieve any permanent change, even though it is a vital cog in the machine for achieving a widescale take-up of cycling as an alternative to car use. For all the discoveries of back routes and quiet roads, people will eventually look for a safe, convenient and direct route, probably from the suburbs into the town centre. When they realise there is, at some point in their journey, no alternative but to mix it with the cars, initial enthusiasm will wither in the face of a heartfelt perception of danger.

I firmly believe that segregation in the form of purpose designed separated infrastructure for bikes is what will make urban cycling a mainstream and accepted mode of transport, but I equally don’t see this as some kind of blanket solution with total nationwide coverage as an alternative to every road in the land.

It is clear to me that the separated infrastructure bit needs to be applied to key strategic routes within and between cities, acting as a collector for all the local quiet routes and cut-throughs, which eventually have to be joined up – it is, after all, how the efficient dendritic pattern of a highway hierarchy tends to work. This is where the segregation idea will pay off, but only as part of a wider, and deeper set of principles.

The wider and deeper set of principes needs to cover all the different strands leading towards developing a cycling culture – cycle chic, fashion, bikeability, travel planning, strict liability, cycle to work schemes, improved parking facilities, bike access through one-way road closures, 20mph zones, shared use streets, ride to right, child safety, stakeholder cycling groups commenting on local plans etc etc etc. But, without the separated infrastructure on key strategic routes to physically and metaphorically “join the dots”, it will all be for nothing.

18 February 2011

A Crack in the Armour?

Spot the Difference...

I have developed the not-so revolutionary theory that when the majority of the open civic space of a city is devoted to the motor car, the guardians of that civic space effectively become the Highway Engineers. Highway Engineers are interested in ideas such as flow, speed and control. Pedestrians need to hemmed in and contained – led like sheep through the danger. Cars need to be regulated and rules imposed – opportunity for decision making and risk assessment need to be reduced and even removed entirely. Traffic lights sprout like unwelcome weeds. Tarmac and white lines are the limited palette.

Modes of transport that do not quite fit the engineer’s vehicular model become problematic in this world order. Skateboarders and cyclists for instance are too slow to be really classified as vehicles, but too fast to sit comfortably with pedestrians. As these modes of transport are therefore considered outside the “mainstream” they naturally evolve to suit their non-mainstream label – subcultures are created and they develop to suit this particular niche. Cyclists thus become the pavement-riding, red-light jumping wiry anarchists we’ve all heard about, weaving through traffic on their fixed wheel tool of protest.

Meanwhile, those citizens dutifully occupying the actual and metaphoric “middle of the road” go about their business, snug inside their cars, sitting in splendid isolation amongst the walnut veneer and hi-fidelity sound, whilst they are whisked efficiently and quickly from A to B without risk or danger thanks to the sound principles of highway design promoted by the engineers.

Except we’re not whisked anywhere are we?

Congestion is the norm everywhere now. The term “gridlock” entered the lexicon as long ago as 1980. Car journeys across town are a slog of queues, traffic lights, junctions and more queues. To cross Cardiff from Roath to Canton – a journey of about 3.5 miles, you have to negotiate about 25 sets of traffic lights – about 50% of the journey time must be spent completely stationary.

According to James Norton writing in “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City”, the combined motoring interests in the USA became extremely concerned in the mid 1920’s about the impact of “saturation” on the potential market for new cars. The problem of saturation came about due to a combination of safety concerns, congestion due to lack of traffic rules and a growing second hand market. Together, these all served to depress demand. Motordom sought to solve this by re-defining the safety problem to get other users off the road, to control traffic by introducing traffic regulation and, most successfully, by encouraging cities to literally make more space for cars by building more roads. However, saturation in terms of space in cities is once again becoming a real problem, but this time there is no more room for more roads – we’re full.

Is this the crack in the armour of motordom we have been looking for? Can we use the saturation situation to resurrect the arguments that motordom sought to crush back in the 20’s? The one that really used to hurt was the idea of efficiency. In our cities, space is a scarce resource. It needs to be allocated according to the common good and laid out for the benefit of all - that is after all the basis of why civilised cities were founded in the first place. The thing is, cars are extremely inefficient occupiers of space. They need a lot of road space for a very small number of passengers, they spend large amounts of time needing to be stored somewhere, and they don’t pay their way (economically or spatially). Is it time for a re-allocation of space in our cities where efficiency is the measure of appropriateness? That would give a whole new meaning to “hierarchy of provision”.

If only there was a space efficient, lightweight, non-polluting, simple, cheap, easy to park, go-anywhere, do-anything mode of transport that we could turn to in our hour of need*

*Motordom wants us to think small electric cars are the answer to this question. I beg to differ.

15 February 2011

A Civil Society Needs the Bicycle

In an earlier post, I referred to the work of Jan Gehl and his approach to “liveable cities”. One of the things he is trying to do is to civilise our cities, and remind us that the human scale is important. It is why some of his most renowned work has revolved around re-discovering pedestrian routes and re-thinking the balance between cars and people.

If a city with a considered balance between streets and roads, between people and cars can be considered civilised, then another measure of civility is surely how a city treats its cyclists.

So, if you believe that in order to encourage cycling, there needs to be an attention to cycling infrastructure on the Dutch or Danish model, then the way a city treats its cyclists has a physical form. There is a visible demonstration of commitment. This is an important distinction to make, as it means you can’t hide from the political implications of wanting to create a “world class” city (an avowed mission of the good burghers of Cardiff, unlikely as it may seem) – an aspiration of that kind has a real effect on the ground – your progress towards that goal can be measured in blue paint and kerbs.

A civilised attitude to accommodating cyclists and thus offering citizens a safe and viable alternative mode of transport also brings its own rewards, in the shape of benefits which themselves have an impact on quality of life and “liveability”. Improved health, less pollution, less congestion, more efficient public transport are just some of the widely understood arguments, which seem to be happily accepted by Councils and Governments everywhere in terms of written policies. What they haven’t realised is that accepting the argument and spouting platitudes is easy. It is the wholesale re-allocation of street space that is hard – and the lack of action stares us in the face.

But how about some of the less obvious, but equally – if not more – important benefits that we should also champion. How about seeing people with a smile on their face as they cycle along? How about just being able to see people’s faces? How about a gentler pace in peace and quiet in the morning rush hour with just the tinkle of bells and whirring of gears to accompany the birdsong? How about the opportunity to say good morning to a fellow coommuter?

All intangible in terms of benefit. All immeasurable and unquantifiable. And yet at the very heart of what it is to be civilised.

9 February 2011

Where Were All The Cars?

Cardiff Queen Street, http://www.oldukphotos.com/

I continue to read “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City by Peter Norton and many of the strands in the book tap nicely into a concept of urban space promoted by urbanists such as Jan Gehl. “Street” is a completely different concept to “Road” – within the idea of a street there is something about coming together for the common good and about the social necessity of a space for meeting, commerce and communication. Road is a more individual concept, “On the Road” – a lone traveller, with just the empty highway in front.

I am always intrigued by looking at old photographs of familiar places, particular city centres. I am constantly struck by how “modern” life seems in the social sense. There is density, vibrancy and endless activity. In fact, there are people everywhere – on the street, on the pavement. I now wonder if this was all possible because in those days, the “street” was a genuine multi-user experience, but crucially the balance of power was with the slowest – pedestrians, cyclists, horse and cart. The new trams and trolleybuses just had to mix it up with everyone else as best they could. We may well blurt out “look! there are no cars!” Of course, they weren’t really popular or present in any great numbers until the 1920’s in the USA and possibly a little later in the UK – and yet still we are surprised, as if the idea of no cars is preposterous.

This makes a stark contrast with photos taken from similar locations today. The most noticeable change is that the street has been almost completely devoted to a single mode of transport – the car. It is now clearly a road. Other, slower, occupants of the city centre have to fight it out on the margins, literally. Indeed, encroaching on the right of passage of the car has been classified in our minds (if not necessarily in our laws) as some kind of offence – “jaywalking” as the Americans call it.

The fact that the motor-car gained this pre-eminence in our mental and physical urban space created the “bull in society’s china shop” as described by Mikael Colville-Andersen on Copenhagenize, and is the key to understanding why we need the bicycle in the struggle to help turn the road back into a street. It is the bicycle that can now challenge the widely held assumption that cars have the right to the road. It is by challenging this so-called right that we can win back the civic space that was the street of old. It is by challenging this hegemony that we can create the space for the decent, well designed cycling infrastructure in cities that could unlock the pent-up demand for alternative ways of travelling.

2 February 2011

A Bike for All Seasons


Nice article in the Guardian Bike Blog about Cargo bikes, although the comments section is a bit of a hotbed of people violently agreeing with each other but not noticing. Knock his block off!

I like that there is a perfect type of bike for all kinds of people, in all kinds of conditions, in all kinds of situations. And even better; everyone knows their solution is the best. Just goes to show what a versatile, efficient bit of kit a bicycle is really - enough to get your blood boiling...