Tuesday, August 25, 2015

£2m for cycling ... but that isn't all good. In fact some of it could be very, very bad

Posted by Will Bramhill, August 25, 2015

More than £2 million for cycling schemes, says a headline in the Essex County Standard. On the face of it that has to be good, but the local cycling group isn't cheering ... yet.

The package is a curate's egg: good in parts, and the danger is that the bad bits could be very, very bad.

The best scheme is the one across northern High Woods to connect Turner Road with the Highwoods estate and the Gilberd secondary school. This has been long requested by the campaign and local councillors. We hope the money will stretch to a proper 4m-wide machine-rolled asphalt surface and stud-style lighting.

Ipswich Road bike route is being revamped too. This is also good but we are hoping Essex County Council will talk to us before starting work; like all things cycling, the devil will be in the detail. Facts are still sketchy but it would appear that this has taken the place of a scheme for a shared footway down Mile End Road, which CCC had criticised as being unnecessary and dangerous (20mph and further traffic limitation would be far better).

The new bridge across the Colne at Leisure World is going ahead. Again, this is good: the current bridge is too narrow for shared use, and it is always hard to predict the actions of children playing pooh sticks, feeding the ducks or watching the fish. What we have to mention, though is that this bridge should have been fully funded from an eight-year-old planning agreement. We won't go into details, but someone, somewhere, drastically underestimated the cost.

There's also something about bike routes in Stanway and West Colchester (well done to the councillors concerned!) but so far details are sketchy.

And then we run out of good bits.

A cycle path along Colne Bank Avenue. What could this be for? Well, the whisper is that this will replace the bike path along the northern section of Westway, sometimes called Station Way, which provides a direct route from the station to Cymbeline Way and on to the Hilly Fields bike route, the 4,000-student Colchester Institute and the 1,500-pupil St Helena School, as well as a host of local employers, not least Colchester Borough Council at Rowan House. This was hinted at 12 months ago when ECC decided to try to axe the Cymbeline Way crossing; in the end, the outcry was so great that the crossing won a reprieve, although it is being moved 400m to a less convenient and more dangerous position, and ECC was adamant that this was just a pilot scheme. Now, we could be seeing the real agenda: getting cyclists put of the way to widen Colne Bank Avenue and possibly Westway north to four car lanes. What's more ECC's proposed diversion is circuitous and involves far more dangerous road crossings. We want to see more about the scheme before we decide whether to condemn it, but if it involves the use of the tunnels beneath Westway, some land acquisition will be necessary to make it a viable scheme. (UPDATE: a senior council officer has said that losing the Westway cycle route "is not the preferred approach" and is checking with colleagues; we'd be very happy if this whisper was wrong.)

At this point we should make clear that we recognise that Colchester is a growing town and that more homes will inevitably mean more journeys. However what the town lacks is high quality alternatives to the car. Bus priority is sadly lacking despite a new bus lane at North Station (why no northbound bus lane?); why no control over North Station Road south? Or Butt Road? Cycling facilities should be direct and convenient, with high subjective safety and suitable for everyone aged 8-80, from a racing cyclist out trading to grandma off to play bowls. Until such a network is in place, people will continue to use the car for unsuitable short journeys, which will discourage people from walking and cycling. What's more, extra capacity in itself will encourage more traffic, which will filter down into the towns substandard roads, such as Brook Street and Hythe Hill … meaning that extra road space is largely a waste of time and money (we’ve seen this time and again, but the lesson has still to be learnt).

While on the topic of cars first, Lexden Road may be about to provide another example of ECC's skewed transport vision. The council is putting in a bus lane that the bus experts say is of little value (it hasn't even talked to the main bus operator yet). It is also taking out cycling lanes to make space rather than constricting car flow (just as happened at North Station). Eastbound riders will share with buses (would you like your 8-year-old doing this?) while westbound riders will share the footway with pedestrians. This is shared use gone mad: shared use may work on the Wivenhoe Trail and the path near the Riverside estate, but when you start talking about commuters rather than leisure cyclists, and huge footfall, then the idea just doesn't work. Already bus users, the disabled and ordinary pedestrians are up in arms about shared use near the station. And rightly so. What dumbo thinks it is a good idea to put cyclists and pedestrians together on the busiest footway next to a railway station that handles 36,000 commuter journeys daily? Probably the same person who judges it a good idea to put cyclists on the main footway leading to five major senior schools, as is the case on Lexden Road. A pointless scheme.

And then we get to crossings. One of Essex’s car schemes is for new traffic lights to replace the mini roundabout at the northern end of Brook Street. But what effect will it have on other users? For starters, it throws into question the current ped/cycle crossing at East Bay, which is directly on the desire line for cyclists using National Cycle Route 51 between Riverside and the Hythe. We would oppose this scheme wholeheartedly if it endangers the integrity of this route. There are also plans to remove various crossings in the town centre, couched in “weasel words” in the latest council report (for instance, “improving access to Bank Passage for park and ride bus users” rather than “ripping out the main crossing used by old folk from the nearby sheltered home”, and “easing passage for traffic at the eastern end of High Street” rather than “taking out the pedestrian crossing between town and the castle, the main tourist attraction in town”.

As is normal with the current leadership of Essex Highways (whether this is councillor of officer-led we don’t know), there is huge secrecy. CCC was able to ”leak” details of Lexden Road after a chance meeting with a gas engineer doing preliminary works, and we found out that even Sue Lissimore, the Conservative county councillor (same party, same council as the one making the decisions), had been kept in the dark. It also issued orders for work on North Station nearly ten weeks after work had started, despite at least 20 months of requests for consultation on the scheme; cock-up or conspiracy? You decide.

So what is CCC doing about it? Until we are given the fine details, it will be difficult to pass judgment, and ECC is still being secretive. That said, we have opened hailing channels with a couple of senior officers to talk about overarching policy. We hope that this attitude filters down into the nitty-gritty. We are also taking a stand using equality legislation, in that such actions as removing crossings and diverting cycleways should, by law, be given due regard early on in the planning process. We have a letter on this issue pending with ECC.

Finally, CCC has formed a close relationship with Colchester Hospital medics, who know that the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes will bankrupt the NHS within 15-20 years. Already one fifth of the town’s 10 to 11-year-olds are overweight/obese, and obese children will make very obese adults taking up huge amounts of health funding. Cycling is a cheap, efficient, healthy and green form of exercise; we’ve been pointing it out for years  

Will Bramhill, planning officer