30 March 2011

A Coalition of the Willing

There are many obstacles to the goal of seeing separated infrastructure along the lines of the Dutch model here in UK towns and cities – ranging from economic issues to political problems. People often focus on the spatial issues, or the seemingly prohibitive costs, but I’d like to focus briefly on the technical challenges, as I believe this is another critical front in pushing the cycling infrastructure debate forward.

My proposal is that as well as building political will and social acceptance, building technical capacity is crucial. As might be imagined, highway engineering and design is a highly formalised and codified activity – this is not surprising. But what might be more surprising to some is the degree to which this comment also applies to urban design, architecture, masterplanning and landscape architecture – roles which might be traditionally regarded as somehow more artistic endeavours.

When embarking on a masterplan project, it is the connections which become one of the primary building blocks for the designers. Even at concept stage, with pencil in hand, designers need to be mindful of technical best practice and regulations, particularly when looking at public realm design, paths and roads. Vision splays, turning circles, fire appliance access – like them or loathe them, these are the ground rules of any scheme. There are a few key documents to refer to, notable amongst them the Manual for Streets and Manual for Streets Part 2 (particularly on residential or urban schemes).

I see an incredible opportunity in bringing the immense database of knowledge available on building cycling infrastructure in Holland – collected in large part on the Fietsberaad website – to a wider technical audience in the UK. Indeed, I see the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain as being the fundamental conduit for this to happen. The process is already underway with the development of the CEGB Wiki. I can imagine this developing as published design guides and easy-to-read factsheets on best practice, which would be available to all designers and masterplanning professionals.

The idea being that by influencing those who set the ground rules with pencil in hand, then you make it easier to make space for suitable and excellent infrastructure from day one.

I believe architects, urban designers and masterplanners will be open-minded to this kind of information, and they can in turn pressurise other design team professionals on design teams to push this agenda forward. At the same time, I can see the CEGB building alliances with the professional institutions such as the RIBA, RTPI and CIHT, who can in turn influence the preparation of technical guidance. For instance, the CIHT were authors of Manual for Streets Part 2 – this was not a “Government” publication handed down on tablets of stone, but rather a document prepared by a learned institute. It is that learned institute we need to influence and persuade as much as any politician or economist.

The Manual for Streets already pushes the boundaries of what many typical municipal highway engineers might have thought reasonable and acceptable just a few years ago. It is already allowing us to discuss in meaningful terms a rebalancing of the urban spatial environment in favour of pedestrians and non-motorised transport. By building a coalition of the willing and giving them the tools to deliver, who knows how much further we can go?

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