Slightly revised version of a post previously published on my WordPress site. Comments could not be transferred, unfortunately.
I am afraid I have not kept this blog much up to date with recent developments, though I have been busy attending things relevant to cycling: the Cycling Embassy AGM held in Bristol in May, the Cycling Cultures report launch at the University of East London, and meetings discussing the preliminary results of TfL's junction reviews. I will give some thoughts arising out of the first of these today.
Despite having been born and brought up in the south-west quarter of England, I had never actually been to Bristol, and I had never seen the "flagship" National Cycle Network route, the Bristol to Bath bike path, so all this was very interesting. The Cycling Embassy group were shown not only the Bristol to Bath path, the full length of which we cycled, but also the work on the Two Tunnels cycle (and walking) route within Bath, which will, eventually, link the B2B path with new suburbs..
|Cycling Embassy folk arrive at Bath on the one hot Saturday we have had his "summer"|
|The long blocked-off entrance to a railway tunnel in Bath that should soon be part of a magnificent cycle route|
|Brand new bridge forming part of the Two Tunnels Greenway, Bath|
|This awkward crossing of a road on the Two Tunnels Greenway will soon go in favour of a bridge|
|Good junction treatment where the Bristol to Bath route crosses a minor road (but the vegetation could do with cutting back)|
|Refreshment stop on the Bristol to Bath path|
Later in the day, after the AGM itself, we were shown around Bristol town centre by Steve Melia, who explained how the area had been change to favour walking and cycling in recent years, and went into proposals for further reducing motor traffic in the centre and the politics of this change. The meeting extended over a whole weekend, and on the Sunday there were two further bike trips round Bristol and its environs, both led by Joe Dunckley. The first explored cycling conditions in the northern suburbs and some of the established and developing routes (other than the B2B path), and the second took us to some new places including scenic views of the Avon gorge.
|Steve Melia (left) explains proposals to further limit motor traffic in the centre of Bristol by restricting the use of the bridge in the distance|
|The Clifton suspension Bridge by Brunel, from the riverside path|
|Not particularly smart or expensively-designed, but this is Shared Space in Bristol that is genuinely shared because most motor traffic has been excluded. Contrast with London's failed Exhibition Road scheme.|
|Rather magnificent new bike path in the northern suburbs of Bristol|
|Part of the Concord Way route, North Bristol|
|The Concord Way route passes under a big road here. The space is insufficient, but at least a properly-connected and continuous largely traffic-free cycle route has been provided, a great rarity in the UK|
|Decent space for cyclists and pedestrians side by side through Castle Park in central Bristol|
|Sensible design of main road segregation continues the route over a bridge|
Bath is fairly cycle-unfriendly at the moment; the B2B path is not satisfactorily connected to the town centre, the riverside path that is supposed to have that function being far too narrow, and the on-road alternatives hostile. But the local authority is progressive and with Sustrans is working hard, and it looks like the Two Tunnels Greenway will be a huge breakthrough. Even without a good connection to Bath town centre, the Bristol to Bath path is absolutely at capacity, and urgently needs to be widened (or have alternative routes built to take some of the pressure off). We were accompanied on the ride on the path by a Bath councillor, the city's "Cycling Champion", and he recognised this. The path is a victim of its own success, and is generating the need for more investment on cycling infrastructure elsewhere. He made the legitimate point that, due to shortage of available funds, it was hard to decide whether the existing path should be improved or developments made elsewhere. This is not a choice that really should have to be made.
|Bristol to Bath path in Bristol suburbs: cyclists taken clear of busy roads; hugely popular with all ages|
Where the B2B path enters the suburbs of Bristol, it does not conk out or divert onto minor roads or collide with cycle-unfriendly traffic systems, as do most off-road cycle paths in the UK when entering urban areas. It is carried over motorways and roundabouts on bridges that almost made me feel I was back in the Netherlands, where, of course, high-level engineering totally separating cycle flows from motor traffic is the norm. The original line of the railway did not go properly to Bristol city centre, but new links have now been created within the city to allow you to cycle, traffic, free, all the way there. And when you get to Bristol city centre, there are extensive almost traffic-tree spaces to cycle around in.
Bristol waterfront: a little bit "Dutch"
|Yet another bridge for cyclists and pedestrians in central Bristol|
|Cyclists of all ages come out for business and leisure in Bristol because of the existence of convenient and spacious traffic-free paths and bridges|
|Steve Melia indicates the route of a huge road through Bristol's Regency centre prior to the restoration of Queen Square in 2000. The statue is George III by Rysbrack (1733).|
We needed a body that shouted a single, clear, unambiguous message about cycling "from the rooftops": Mass cycling as transport ain't going to happen in the UK without proper cycle paths and tracks everywhere, in the city, suburbs and countryside. There was some overlap between the objectives of the Embassy and Sustrans, the great charity responsible for the B2B path and other elements of the National Cycle Network, but they were and are primarily a provider of a practical service involving the organisation of volunteers, not primarily a political lobby group, and also, as recipients of large amounts of public (or lottery) money, they could not be regarded as a fully independent force. Also, I think it is fair to say that the founders of the Embassy regarded Sustrans' apparent collective concept of the nature of the cycle infrastructure that the UK required to be inadequate. We felt there needed to be a voice that was (in a friendly, constructive way) critical of Sustrans and of inadequate demands by other cycling organisations.
So that was what the Embassy was about, but what sort of organisation should it be? A membership organisation, a pressure group, a think-tank, or a political lobby? This was debated at this AGM. It was decided that the Embassy should not a membership organisation. It was decided that there is no need for another organisation to compete with CTC and British Cycling to be a provider of benefits (such as insurance) to individual cyclists in return for a membership fee. These organisations do a good job. The Embassy also, it was decided, does not have the resources to be a consultee on whatever problems or schemes need addressing for cycling on a local basis across the country, though we do with to supply good information to local campaigning groups, who are the proper people to advise local authorities as to what needs doing in their areas.
The Embassy, it was decided, should free itself primarily to be the national lobby directed at central government (Westminster and the devolved administrations) for asatisfactory policy, legal backing, and funding for building cycling through provision of cycle-specific infrastructure across the UK, based on best-practice from what has been proven to work in other countries. The Embassy would be a network of supporters who all shared the vision of mass cycling on quality separated infrastructure, with all the huge economic, social and health benefits for the nation we believe that would bring. With a large support base, pledged to support a clear manifesto, it would be possible to go to central government and say "This is what X thousand people think on this subject. What are you going to do about it?"
This is the point. For too long (almost the whole period of the invention of the bicycle, in fact, the British government has failed to provide a lead on how the bike should be accommodated in our country. We have been watching and discussing the successful pro-bike policies of some of our continental neighbours, particularly, of course, the Netherlands, for 80 years, wondering whether or not they could work here, while continuing, in practice, to design-out the bike from our urban and rural environments so comprehensively that the vast majority of the population consider it totally out of the question to attemp to meet the daily transport needs by cycling. In each decade, in each generation, and in each parliament, ministers of transport have insisted that it is "the responsibility of local authorities" to provide for cycling, without giving them the direction, the legislative backing, the powers and the funding to do it. If this attitude had been taken in respect of the nation's railways, its ports, motorways and airports, we would have none – as we have (with precious few exceptions like the B2B path) no effective cycle infrastructure.
We need a change that has to come from the top. Getting this is the huge task that the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has set itself. Every town, city and rural district in the UK needs to have what Bristol has, but far more, and better, and that won't happen until central government has said loud and clear that this is what they want and provided the cash, freedom and expertise to local authorities to make it happen. That will mean ending the long British tradition of treating cycling as some sort of toy or diversion, but reassessing it thoroughly as universal efficient mass transport for medium-length daily journeys and part of the core infrastructure requirements of a modern advanced nation, on a par with motor, rail, air and sea infrastructure.
It's a long way off. But in Bristol, Bath, and other places, many people are working towards this goal, and, little, by little, in places, it is becoming a reality, and then other places can see how it is done. Brighton (with its Green Party council) has taken the latest substantial step with a high-quality cycle track on Old Shoreham Road that looks as if it will be genuinely useful to many cyclists. As more good examples of working dedicated cycle infrastructure appear around the country, other towns will want the same, and, with the correct policies from central government, a momentum will develop that has the potential to transform the appearance of our towns and the nature of local transport across the UK.
The Cycling Embassy is organising an Infrastructure Safari on bikes for campaigners, planners, politicians, and anyone interested to see what has been achieved in Brighton and Worthing on Saturday 18 August. Sign up to the Embassy (if you have not already done so) to be kept informed, and put the date in your diary. And if you think the Embassy should come and look at cycling developments in your town, then tell us. Don't forget also that the Embassy is organising another study tour party with David Hembrow in Assen, Netherlands, in September. If you want to understand what it is really all about, what the Embassy is actually aiming at, this is the one "must-do" activity. You will see how riding a bike becomes really "as easy as riding a bike" in the correct environment, and why we urgently need this in the UK. We've been discussing this for 80 years. We shouldn't loose any more time.