Saturday, July 02, 2016

Balkerne Hill — a bridge too wide?

The Balkerne Hill footbridge from the west
This week Colchester Council granted planning permission for a wider footbridge across Balkerne Hill. While we welcome the scheme, we were amazed when, last autumn, Essex County Council announced the plans. ECC sneaked in the idea as part of its project to change the flow of traffic on Priory Street on the other side of the town centre, and it was down to luck that we noticed Balkerne Hill among the paperwork on show at an "information event".

The idea is an old one: back in the late 1990s and early 2000s we tried to get a contribution for a wide plaza to replace the bridge as part of the scheme for new homes at nearby St Mary's Fields. We thought a wider structure would present the Romans' Balkerne Gate (the oldest Roman gate in the UK) at its best.

That came to nothing but then the Labour government gave Colchester £4.2m and made it a "cycling town"  with the aim of "bridging the gaps".

Widening the Balkerne Hill bridge was immediately considered but we were told the abutments would not be strong enough for a broader structure (ECC said engineers had to take into account the maximum load should the bridge ever be full). The cycling town group (councils, campaigners, public health people, police, army, etc) then concentrated on creating a route along Crouch Street.

As a halfway house, however, and because cyclists were already using it, the railings on the bridge were raised to a height that complied with national best practice — and made it less likely that a rider would tumble 12m to the busy road below.

ECC also said it would remove the order that banned cyclists from riding on the bridge.

And there the matter stayed until last September — because the supervisory organisation, Cycling England, went up in flames as part of David Cameron's "Bonfire of the quangos".

As a former CCC chairman, I thought the cycling ban had been removed, but it turned out this was only because I ride almost exclusively east to west. Essex did not remove the sign for cyclists going west to east. This is typical of the legal confusion left behind by Essex Legal Services in the wake of cycling town.

Personally, I believe the Balkerne Hill scheme will be like Lower Castle Park: a lot of hands raised in horror at the idea which then settle down. There are examples of wide areas like this being used with no ill effects and very little conflict, including this one in Queen Street, London, which handles thousands of pedestrian and bike journeys a day with very little conflict.

Yet, I hear you say, the cycling campaign opposed Mile End Road: why is that different?

There are several reasons, but these are the main ones:
1) cyclists in Mile End Road will be going up to 25mph downhill
2) driveways mean that cars will be clashing with cyclists
3) parked cars raise the risk of "dooring"
4) it's too narrow, and
5) the road is a reasonable alternative: there are very few cars and most travel well within the speed limit (Balkerne Hill bridge, by contrast, is on a desire line with no reasonable alternative.)

Like Mile End Road, ECC allowed very little input from the cycling campaign. In fact we've been kept totally in the dark. If we had been consulted, we would have advanced the idea of a bridge with splayed sides such as this, below.

Note how the sloping sides add to the feeling of safety
with this bridge in the Netherlands (Courtesy Mark Wagenbuur)

That's probably academic now, although it is yet another reason why Essex should listen to cyclists, no matter how much it hates us.

Between now and the time the new, wider bridge opens, probably in early winter 2016, I'd like to explain a few things.

Every bicyclist rides an inherently unstable machine. Even hitting a bumble bee can be enough to cause you to lose balance and suffer injury. That's why most cyclists ride considerately. When cyclists encounter pedestrians, they tend to slow down. Video studies show that virtually all riders reduce their speed to that of pedestrians: cyclists don't want to hit anyone nor do they want to fall off themselves.

Lots of people say that cyclists can "get off and walk". over the bridge. This is the equivalent of expecting motorists to "get out and push", or even drop off a passenger, drive 25m then pick up the passenger again. Walking for a section of the journey ruins a utility ride in terms of overall speed and convenience. We want people to cycle for health and for the environment: spoiling the advantages of their journey will not achieve that aim. As an aside, there is also the issue of disabled or older cyclists, for whom getting off and back on to a bike can be a struggle but they do it because cycling is a faster means of transport. Why penalise them?

Pushing a bike can also be more dangerous that riding slowly and considerately. For a start, you take less of the width of the path. Also, take a look at a bike, with its sticky-out pedals, handlebar ends and brake levers. Any cyclist can explain the agony of a pedal coming into contact with a shin bone. It hurts! So long as you can control a bike at slow speeds -- and most riders can -- it is better to stay in the saddle with feet on pedals and hands covering bar ends and levers.

A Santander hire bike in London. Note the registration number.
So what about bells? Up until the Coalition government's "bonfire of red tape" in 2011, all new bikes had to have bells fitted when sold. However, bells are not a legal requirement and the human voice "Excuse me" or even the grossly rude "Get out of the f*&%$£g way" are means of warning of approach. Personally, I like bells. I have a Lion bell on my favourite bike and its sonorous "ping" is my pride and joy. That said, some people like being "pinged" while others hate it. I've lost count of the number of times that a pedestrian has sworn at me just for ringing my bell while I've been riding slowly and considerately.

Many anti-cycle people point to cyclists not paying road tax or having registration plates. For starters, there is no such thing as road tax, and many low-emission cars are also exempt; why should cyclists pay when some drivers don't and they require far less investment and cause far less wear and tear on the road surface? Registration schemes have been tried many times and never worked; they have been far more expensive to administer than their worth (just like the UK dog licence); London's hire bikes have had serial numbers in 112pt type on their rear stays. In five years, no one has used a number to report misuse of a bike by a particular cyclist. 

All this said, you always get idiots. Idiots are idiots whether they're on foot, on bike or, worst of all, in a car. It's a social problem. They're inconsiderate people; full stop. Please feel free to shout at them, to cuss at them, to flip them the bird, but don't reserve your ire just for cyclists: do the same for bad drivers, especially those on the phone and fiddling with their satnav, and bad walkers, too.

Will Bramhill // July 2, 2016