22 September 2015

Living car-free in Scotland?

We've lived in the UK for over 20 years, and in Scotland for 12, without needing a car.  It helps that Oxford and Edinburgh have both proved cycle and walking friendly, and both have excellent bus systems too.  Even since we've had kids, we've not regretted not having a car in the city.  Just this summer, with an 8yo and a 4yo we managed expeditions by train and bike to Tantallon and Dirleton Castles, and their associated beaches.  It's great for the kids to have the experience of getting places under their own steam, and really seeing the countryside.  Plus it tires them out, so they sleep soundly at night :)

But half-term poses new challenges.  It's not that we can't cycle 40km easily in a day as a family, with the 8yo on her own bike, and the 4yo on the tandem.  And we're pretty adept at carrying supplies in panniers.  But a lot of places that we'd like to go require a train trip first -- like the off-road route from Glasgow to Loch Lomond.  The problem is that Scotrail only lets you book 2 bikes per train. And it won't take tandems at all (even 'compact' ones like ours).   So, while an ideal scenario would be to borrow a second tandem, load them up and take the train to Pitlochry, or up the West Highland way, we can't do that.  Even if we just took one tandem, we'd still have 3 bikes, which is also not allowed.  And as Alison Johnstone wrote earlier, just getting 2 bikes on some trains can be a challenge.

Supposedly, guards can use their discretion and let extra bikes on, but when travelling with kids, that's really not an option - you need to know that you'll all be able to get on trains, and arrive at a decent hour, not gamble on a friendly guard.   A few years ago, we got stuck on the platform at Longniddry with a toddler at dusk because the guard wouldn't let us on an otherwise empty train, because 2 bikes had boarded at an earlier station.  It didn't matter that the train was full of empty carriages, this particular woman was determined to show us that we didn't count and physically prevented us from boarding.  We had to wait another hour, as it got dark and cold. It spoiled a lovely day out watching the geese at Aberlady bay.   So, no, I won't be trusting to the good will of the guards when venturing further afield.

What's frustrating about this is that Abellio, the new franchise holder promotes itself as 'cycle friendly' and the Scottish government wants to promote 'cycle tourism'.  But I guess that's just for young fit couples, and single adventurous cyclists.  Not for families that would rather do without the hassles of car ownership.

Well, we've given in.  There is now a British license-holder in our family, and we'll be joining the car club as soon as we can.  But if the franchise terms for other lines and orders for new trains could contemplate some flexible seating into which bikes could go, or having multiple cars with bike carriage, then there would be so many more options for families like ours.

for more info:  http://www.spokes.org.uk/2015/07/new-glasgow-edinburgh-trains/


I ended in a bit of a twitter-slanging-match this morning.  With Stella Creasy of all people.  I've rather admired her style and approach to politics - she seemed to really want to bring an energetic, campaigning politics back into the Labour Party.  But I was disappointed by this tweet, which excerpted parts of a newsletter from her, which seemed very negative - portraying the Walthamstow 'miniholland' project as being about cyclists versus 'everyone else'.

Disappointed by @stellacreasy’s latest newsletter which echoes #miniholland concerns of a noisy pro-car minority http://t.co/WMiPfijqWM
22/09/2015 08:32

In our subsequent exchange, she kept emphasising how she was trying to 'balance' the competing needs.*  Which reminded me of how affirmative action campaigns for women are too often critiqued for not being 'balanced', and how often 'balance' is promoted by the status quo as a reason for keeping the status quo, as in this fun tweet that came in about the same time: 

"We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them."
22/09/2015 09:16   [
which links to this article. ]

Stella Creasy said that my comparison was 'silly'.  But is it?  surely our current infrastructure is built with cars and drivers as their primary concern?  

So here's my top examples of our transport infrastructure privileging cars, rather than active travel:

  • Tarmac is continuous across junctions, but pavements stop
  • Driveways and entrances to car parks always have dropped kerbs, but not pedestrian crossings
  • 'Green wave' traffic lights that turn green for cars, but give cyclists red after red
  • Wide corner radiuses that make it easy for cars to turn, but widen the crossings making it difficult for pedestrians to cross
  • Push buttons on toucans - do you ever see drivers having to get out and push a button? 
  • Dummy 'push buttons' on pelican crossings that are actually controlled automatically from junctions
  • Half of most roadways taken up with parked cars 
  • Road signs and parking meters on pavements, not on roadways, even though they deal with car regulations 
It's time to redress the balance - which is why we should all get behind the mini-holland schemes, and similar schemes elsewhere in the country. If criticism is needed, let's make it constrictive criticism, and not hide behind excuses of 'balance'. 

*  To be clear - she didn't use the word 'balance' - that is my reading of her various tweets and newsletter.  But she did say my comparison was "silly". 

20 March 2015

The uncertainty principle

My last post was about how problematic uncertainty is in cycle infrastructure.  It's since occurred to me that the problem isn't uncertainty itself, but uncertainty for the more vulnerable.

Good cycle infra, as seen in Holland, Denmark, etc reduces uncertainty - cyclists have their own safe spaces, as do pedestrians and cars.  But even the Dutch have some spaces where uncertainty is permitted - such as the bike streets that identify cars as visitors, and make it clear that the space is intended for cyclists and pedestrians.  Likewise, streets with no centre line and bike lanes on either side - a UK can be seen here and a study by TfL here .   But crucially here, the uncertainty is on the part of the car drivers, as the least vulnerable users. 

Edinburgh is trialling this system on a road on the outskirts of the city.  It's not perfect - the road speed is too high, and the bike lanes are not going to be colored. But it does introduce uncertainty for the car driver, rather than the cyclist. 

By contrast, the paths leading to North Meadow Walk have given the uncertainty to the pedestrians, as discussed in my last blogpost, and as @fountainbridge shows in this mockup:  
Cyclists have lots of signs telling them what to do and how to behave, but pedestrians have nothing.  Anyone who knows about Scottish law will know that pedestrians have full rights to use both the paths marked in green and in pink, but the signals being sent to them say differently.  So uncertainty is created.  

This is the exact opposite of the basic principles discussed above -- the heavier, more dangerous form of transport should be made to feel like a 'guest', not the most vulnerable. 

Until we put this principle at the heart of our infrastructure, we're getting it wrong.  We'll continue to foster resentment and hostility between cyclists and pedestrians, and discourage the take-up of active travel that our policies claim to promote. 

14 March 2015

What's the point of 'infrastructure'?

I'd like to think that the point of infrastructure was to decrease conflict and increase safety of all road users, but especially the most vulnerable.  So, roads should be designed to enable pedestrians to cross safely and easily.  Too often this isn't the case and unnecessary barriers are put in their way  (as shown here and here).  

Sadly, this is too often the effect of cycle infrastructure too.  And this is frustrating because pedestrians' subjective safety matters too.  The two most common examples  are chicanes  and shared use pavements.  But Edinburgh seems to have invented some new and particularly baffling versions.  

'Normal' shared use has a pavement with some blue signs in the air, that most people don't see or understand.  But since shared use should only be used on wide pavements with relatively low footfall, its rarely a huge cause of problems (except misunderstandings, of which there are many). 

But the video above is from North Meadow Walk in Edinburgh - a much used commuter, jogging, dog-walking and leisure route. This is an intensively used path, where markings have been painted in such a way to suggest to pedestrians coming from the east that cyclists should be on the right hand side of the path and to pedestrians coming from the west that they should be on the left. Maybe.  It's not clear.  

Similar paint is used on the short cut-through path on the other side of the toucan crossing.  It's been raised many times as confusing. But instead of improving it, the Council has seen fit to replicate it.  On an even shorter length of path. 

What's the point to putting in 'infrastructure' (if we can call paint that), when it confuses users and creates conflict?  

23 February 2015

Do we need an anti-pedestrian lobby?

So the anti-20mph march on Saturday was pretty much a damp squib. It was a lovely crisp sunny morning and about 40 people turned up. 

I'm ever so slightly disappointed. 

I can't help thinking that it might be helpful to have an organised residents group that actually opposed policies that aim to make our streets more attractive to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.

Currently the SNP, Labour and the Greens all support the 20mph roll out, and the Conservatives have mostly sensible things to say about transport.  

So, one of the reasons for the 'massive backlash' against the 20mph campaign is that when it was being planned and consulted on, no one lobbied against it or wrote to the newspapers in dismay, so most people just ignored it. 

Edinburgh's 20mph is just one part of a longstanding bundle of policies, wrapped up in the Local Transport Strategy, Active Travel Plan etc that's been chuntering through the system for years.  Councillors from all parties have been involved, and many users have been consulted, and that's why there is a fairly strong cross-party consensus

But while there are lobby groups pushing for more support to active travel, there are relatively few that will actively oppose it.  So we never really debate these issues - we just get opposing soundbites in the local paper.  

If we had a group willing to say that they didn't care about air pollution, or KSI rates, and actively wanted to reduce the number of cyclists on the roads, then we could actually have a robust debate about why we think more cyclists, less pollution and lower KSI rates is better.  

A hugely frustrating aspect of the current debate is that the anti-20mph folk just keep repeating the same opinions, with their fingers in their ears.  So they keep demanding 'facts'  and refusing to look at them. If there was actually a lobby against these things, they'd have to go to all the same meetings that we do, read all the reports, and respond to all the consultations.   I'm not saying they'd change their minds, but it would blow a huge hole in their 'we weren't asked' and 'nobody consulted me or my mum' repertoire. 

They'd have to answer tough questions from reporters when asthma  rates went up, childhood obesity increased further or respond to the grief of parents and loved ones widowed too soon.  They'd have to face the reality of their policies.

I'd like to see that.

19 February 2015

5 years for two yellow lines?

In March 2013 I blogged about a dropped kerb that had finally been installed, 3 years after I'd first raised with the council - and others had already flagged it to them at that point.  We celebrated its arrive with bubbly, and gave a small libation to the ancestors as well.  It was a tiny change to our 'streets cape' but one that we notice and enjoy every time we use it.

Isn't it lovely? photo by chdot 

Except often we can't actually use it, because there are cars parked over it.  Now, two years on, we finally have double yellows not just on this dropped kerb, but - I hope - on all the entrances to the park and canal path.  You can still see the vestiges of a parking place on the picture above, but hopefully the yellow lines will discourage most from blocking it.

So, five years for a drop kerb, on a route that sees hundreds of cyclists everyday.

A victory?

Maybe.   If only anti-cyclist infrastructure didn't get installed on a whim, and usually badly.  Why is that a dropped kerb takes 5 years, while chicanes can be put up in weeks after a single complaint?  The dropped kerb itself may be minor, but it captures the inequities of urban governance regarding active travel as does  the city's repeated inability to install chicanes properly.

Coincidentally, it was pointed out to me earlier today that the Active Travel Action plan includes this action:

Set up a process for reporting missing dropped kerbs/identifying priority new dropped kerbs by the end of 2011, and then implement the highest priority ones.

Going about this in an ad-hoc way is clearly a waste of campaigners and council time, as well as inequitable to areas with less shouty campaigners.  

Do you have some kerbs you'd like dropped in less than 5 years?  Let's make a list. 

16 February 2015

Act now to save our bus (and bike) lanes

The hottest issue to hit Edinburgh cycle campaigning is...bus lanes.  Yup.  Bus lanes.  Not removing obstacle on paths, designing better infrastructure or even tram tracks.  Nope. The thing that has got even the mild-mannered folks at Spokes up in arms this week is the council's proposal to reduce the time that bus lanes are restricted to buses (and bikes, obviously).  A detailed objection from Spokes, Living Streets and Greener Leith is here. 

Now, there are people out there who secretly believe that Spokes writes the council's agenda.  In the deeper realms of the internet I'm sure there are people who believe that Dave du Feu has a stash of 'indiscreet' pictures of Lesley Hinds that he threatens to release...the reality is that Spokes goes out of its way to be constructive and to temper the criticism with a healthy dose of flattery. But this time, they're angry.

It's taken me a while to get my head around this one.  I think bus lanes are great, but they are bus infrastructure, so surely the people who ought to be seeing red are public transport campaigners?  I'm all for encouraging public transport. The worst cities I've lived in - with the most congested  and dangerous roads - have been those where only 'the poor' use public transport.  One of the things that makes Edinburgh liveable is its excellent public transport network.  

But I've struggled to understand why cycle campaigners are so worked up about it.  As far as I can see bus lanes are too often used as an excuse for not building proper cycle infrastructure.  First we're told that the need for bus lanes means there 'isn't room' for cycle lanes, and then we're told that bus lanes give us protected space.  This was explicit when it came to the north end of Leith Walk, where the council refused to build protected cycle lanes inside the parked cars, but told us we didn't need them anyway, because we had a bus lane.  Now they're proposing to reduce the time that those lanes are active, and allow all vehicles to use them during the day.

Which made me think a bit. I think bus lanes are crap because all the ones I regularly use are already part-time. Because they're not on my commute, I never see buses in them.  Take George IV Bridge - when did you last see a bus in the bus lane?  If you're like me, you'll have seen buses cruising down the central lanes, and dipping in and out of the bus lanes.  That's because the 'bus lane' is full of taxis and white vans loading, unloading, painting, decorating and god knows what else.  So, the off-peak bus lanes are useless - unless you're a 9-5 commuter.  And what the council wants to do is make all our bus lanes equally useless.

If you don't want that to happen  let them know. The consultation ends on Wednesday the 18th.  Otherwise all of our bus lanes will become de facto loading zones.  

I still don't think bus lanes come anywhere close to being good cycle infra. The closest I have come to being smushed on the roads of Edinburgh was by a bus in a bus lane on the Dalkeith Rd.  A bus had pulled in to the stop by the Commie Pool, I carried on straight.  Driver saw there were no passengers and pulled back into 'his' lane without looking in his mirror (I wasn't in a blind spot, I could see where he was looking, and it was at the kerb).  Proper infrastructure would have a cycle lane behind the bus stop.

I'm hoping we can start campaigning for that soon.  As soon as I find out where DdF's stashed *those* pictures....

11 February 2015

A businessman's view of 20mph

This was actually a comment on my last blogpost, but it's so good I thought it deserved its own post: 

As a business owner and commercial rate payer I would say that the 20mph zone in Marchmont has been a qualified success. 

We opened before this was set up and have seen more families walking and cycling to school with much fewer drivers ignoring the limit. A few still do of course (hence the use of qualified) but generally people understand that this is an area where people like to walk (or cycle) between local businesses. There are no marked crossings on this street and the advent of 20mph zones means that a minor adjustment of speed can allow the young and old to get across safely. From a driving point of view the absence of light controlled crossings will actually make driving less frustrating. Also will save money. 

We run a bike shop so readers may think that we are immune to any laws that pertain to cars. In fact the 20mph zone also helps with parking as when a street is marked at 30mph it means that finding that elusive parking space can annoy fellow car users. When the local retail environment is slowed slightly people have time to see spaces and work with each other. 

You wouldn't expect to drive round a shopping centre car park at 30mph. What's good enough for the large supermarkets is good enough for the business and council tax payers who actually live and work on these streets. 

The city streets are not just there for people 'passing through' and a more pleasant outdoor environment results in more time spent at local shops, cafes and pubs. 

David Gardiner
Laid Back Bikes
Marchmont Crescent