Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cycling dilemma

After the midday Eucharist today, I had, once more, to dash over to the Castle for a meeting of the Countdown 2009 Transport group. The entire session focussed on the thorny problem of how to accommodate cyclists in the scheme of things. The experimental opening of the Queen Street pedestrian area for limited periods to allow bike commuters to use it for east - west travel was an unfortunate concession, attracting many complaints, though fewer bike related accidents than feared.

The street surface is treacherous for cycles when wet or subject to other splillages. There's no means to separate users designed into the street layout, and no useful signage - the old 'cyclists dismount' signs are still there, and bike users pass to and fro at all hours, not just officially tolerated times, as the chance of being stopped are limited, if they can see no police about to catch them. The main problem of abuse relates to those who hang around the city centre streets daily, rather than those commuting to work, and chaining up their bikes on the racks at either end.

The same problem will also persist in St Mary Street once it has been fully pedestrianised, as it's clear cyclists needs have not been designed into street improvement schemes, despite the high profile, vociferous cyclists' lobby. Although bike use is on the increase, there's still not the critical mass of users to have an impact on the way we design our street layouts. When cars become unaffordable luxuries due to fuel costs and public transport strains to accommodate additional users, cycling numbers will swell, I'm sure. The time to plan for the future is now.

What I heard at the meeting was just how difficult a problem it is to reach a satisfactory conclusion on the best measures to take. Street Pedestrianisation Orders ban cyclists, or maybe restricts them to clearly designated routes. On the highway, cyclists are subject to the same Highway Code as other road users, save exceptions to do with not being motor powered. Even this is now under review as a new generation of electrical power assisted bikes appears on the road (definitely an improvement on the French vélomoteur in terms of noise and smell).

Bikes are allowed in bus lanes, and some can and do use them, as well as the roads, but it's clear that many bike users are nervous of riding on roads or in bus lanes for fear of being unseen and knocked off. This is particularly a problem when buses are going at speeds above 20mph producing a gust of air behind them. No wonder many cyclists opt to ride on the pavements risking the wrath of pedestrians, or being pulled over by the police.

Careless cyclists are a danger to themselves and can cause problems for other road users. A cyclist on the road can be ordered to dismount and walk at the kerb if they are going so slowly and erratically that they are obstructing or causing a hazard to other road users. Some road users think cyclists hinder traffic flow, but this is less of an issue around the town centre when ambient speeds are restricted by congestion of traffic lights.

I often wondered why I see cars parked in the red coloured cycle lanes across town. It turns out that these lanes have no force of law behind them, they are only 'advisory', a route marked as recommended by the Council's Highway Department. They could all be removed as more cyclists share the road, the more other users will be aware of them and compensate for their presence, then the 'advice' of painted tarmac will be far less necessary than it is now.

Once the new free bus circulates around the city centre in its designated bus lane, there will be a route commuting cyclists will be able to take, rather than walk or ride illegally through the pedestrian areas. Rogues will do what rogues already do, but what of conscientious green commuters? Will it be asking too much of them to extend their daily travel time by five minutes?

One thing is certain, cyclists are still a headache for traffic managers. Some seem to wish would go away so that they don't have to deal with it. Transportation planners failed decades ago by not being able to see that a time would come when providing enough parking for cars and dealing with vehicle congestion was no longer the totality of their work. Only a dozen cities or towns in Britain rate as cyclist friendly enough to have development plans to ensure the needs of bike users are taken seriously - first among them, our regional rival Bristol.

Generally, city politicians have to drive Council officers to tackle difficult issues in fresh ways. As long as the majority of employees and politicians remain car users and commuters, rather than cyclists, it's going to be a struggle to cut through the gordian knot of complexity, and go for the kind of plan that is affordable and sustainable for all citizens and their different needs. Sadly, as long as our dependency on the car remains so high, motivation will be less than zealous, and cyclists an unwanted headache.

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