Sunday, 7 December 2014

Chickens, eggs and elephants

Not for the first time in my career, I'm spending the run up to Christmas writing guidance on the design of cycling facilities. This time its part of the government's commitment to 'Cycle Proofing' and strengthening the Highways Agency's responsibilities to 'cycle-proof' all of its new roads. The stakes are high. A £15 billion budget for new roads offers the potential for some amazing new cycle infrastructure - bridges, tunnels and miles of segregated tracks. Imagine, a new tunnel for the road past Stonehenge should leave us a magnificent traffic-free route along the current road alignment. The theory is that with better guidance and education, traffic engineers will suddenly see the light and automatically provide cycle infrastructure. So will the 'egg' of guidance give birth to the 'chicken' of infrastructure?

Also not for the first time, I'm finding that the existing guidance contains a familiar set of instructions for planners and traffic engineers: - 2.0m wide cycle lanes, 3.0m wide cycle tracks, 2.0m wide footways, adequate headroom at tunnels and overhanging signs, no sign poles or lamp columns within the cycle track, no sharp corners or steep gradients and a requirement for every new road scheme to undergo a 'Non-Motorised User Audit' at each stage of design. It's all there in the existing documents from the 1980s up to the last revision in 2005, but it continues to be ignored. Indeed, much of the source material for the IHT Cycle Friendly Infrastructure guide and Sustrans National Cycle Network Guidelines and Practical Details, both published in 1996, was derived from the 'Design Manual for Roads and Bridges'.  On my desk I have a copy of the 1946 Ministry of War handbook for road design in urban areas that features many 'Dutch style' treatments of cycle tracks, separate footways and elevated road junctions with the cycle tracks and footways passing beneath at ground level. So our rewriting exercise is not coming up with many amazing new ideas, but is trying to move from 'advice' (i.e. you may do this)  to 'requirements' (i.e. you must do this).

1970s segregated cycle track and footway designed in accordance with existing UK DMRB

Cross sections from a 1946 UK handbook on road design

Engineers like standards i.e. a beam carrying X amount of weight has to be X dimensions with a load bearing capacity of XX. It is clear and unambiguous and enforceable by regulation if necessary. But what about where a countryside route for horse riders, walkers and cyclists crosses a new trunk road? Each user has different requirements for the ideal surface, headroom and preferences for lit/unlit. Is the route primarily for leisure or transport or both? If for some reason (e.g. a steep hill) we cannot meet the standard for one type of user should that user be banned and forced to take a more circuitous route? This requires judgement and experience, but the 'safe' option in the minds of many engineers is to do nothing because the 'standards' cannot be achieved.

Making the guidance more prescriptive could therefore actually lead to less cycling infrastructure being created, particularly when trying to retro-fit on existing roads where ideal dimensions cannot be achieved.  This is sometimes exacerbated by the consultation process, because campaigners are able to 'mock' the local authority or Highways Agency for failing to live up to its own design standards. The highway authorities therefore choose not to even try to do anything.

As always our brief is to include 'good practice from abroad' but on strategic roads there is not that much to say. We need some segregated space (not shared with pedestrians or motor traffic), a cycle track of minimum dimensions 2.0m one-way or 3.0m two-way is sufficient to accommodate all but the highest flows of cycles, and at junctions we don't want to turn across multiple lanes of traffic without the protection of a separate traffic light phase for cyclists or a bridge/subway.  Also, cyclists can't turn at right angles, see through walls or ride up a flight of steps, so no sharp corners or steep gradients please. So that's the design guidance in two sentences!

I do not believe the view that that traffic and civil engineers are too stupid to design cycle infrastructure. They design some pretty complex and amazing arrangements and structures for motor traffic. I'm sure that given sufficient political priority and an appropriate budget, they could indeed 'cycle proof' every new road and do a fairly decent job just by following existing guidance on what to do for cyclists going along or across high-speed, high-flow roads. The existing guidance includes advice to acquire land outside the highway boundary in order to provide for cycling where space is constrained, for example along the edge of a field on the other side of a wall.

The latest round of schemes coming forward from the 'pinch point' funding does not fill me with optimism however. Cycling does not seem to be part of the design brief. The aim is all about moving more motor traffic through a space. There is no recognition that moving cyclists and pedestrians more efficiently and safely might also be good for the economy and help relieve congestion. If cyclists are mentioned at all, it is usually only with regard to safety and their position as 'vulnerable' road users or 'slow modes'. Yet many of these 'pinch points' are at the edges of towns and cities where local traffic is using the strategic road network for short journeys that should be possible by bicycle. Ironically many of those drivers will be driving (and creating the congestion pinch point)  because they are afraid to cycle in the heavy traffic. Providing for cycling is almost always viewed as an additional 'cost burden' to a scheme (along with moving newts and planting trees), not as something integral that will make the scheme perform better.

The major issues that prevent good cycle infrastructure are not to do with design guidance. One significant hurdle is the scheme appraisal. Trunk roads mainly run through rural areas where there are few local trips, and certainly very few walking and cycling trips. The guidance documents for 'non-motorised user audits' and for environmental and financial appraisal suggest gathering data about the numbers of pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians using existing routes affected by the new road. These are unlikely to ever amount to huge numbers, so the economic case for investment will always be weak. This is like saying that we won't provide access for wheelchairs on trains, buses etc because our surveys indicate that only one in every xxx,0000 train journeys involves a wheelchair user and that valuable space on the train is being wasted. In some cases, a projected increase in cycling and pedestrian use will also generate a predicted increase in accidents, and this has a negative impact on the cost:benefit ratio, so making the business case around growth in the numbers cycling isn't necessarily the answer unless the overall health benefits of more people cycling are added into the calculation!

Regardless of the business case, there must be universal provision for walking and cycling alongside and across every newly built road that is accessible to these modes.  We should also as a nation be considering whether other transport corridors such as land alongside motorways, railways and 'easements' and service roads for major pipelines, pylons and wind turbines offer the opportunity to provide new routes for cyclists. One thing that history has taught us is that our transport infrastructure constantly evolves, and many of the strategic 'A' roads of the 1930s have now become local roads, but are not well designed for local users, while many of the disused rail corridors have been reborn as cycle routes. We should not allow the short term saving of 'value engineering' on individual schemes to undermine the long term benefits of creating a national cycle infrastructure network, yet on existing major projects, the provision for walking and cycling is often seen as an opportunity to save money using sub-standard alignments and materials.

The second major issue is capacity. All of our most 'useful' roads are inevitably full during peak travel times, always have been and always will be. Good new roads induce more trips because they make car travel faster and more attractive and this adds more traffic to existing roads. Where new roads and the old roads meet, a new 'pinch point' is created. These pinch points often become the location at which the cycle route infrastructure falls apart and cyclists are forced onto a busy junction with no protection.  It is not always possible to simply build a bigger junction to increase capacity.  In any case this is in conflict with emerging lessons from cities around the world that are reducing the amount of traffic entering urban centres in order to make them more attractive places to live, work, visit and invest.

This is the elephant in the room. Most 'experts' now agree that car based towns and cities have had their day and failed to create the conditions in which people can live happily and prosperously, but national and local politicians in the UK continuously invest in infrastructure that makes driving easier, and oppose any reduction in car parking space or junction capacity. In doing so they continue deny us the space to make good infrastructure for cycling on existing roads.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Bikers behaving badly

A few years ago I went to the Netherlands with the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, specifically to look at Bike-Rail integration. We were made very welcome by NedRail and the Dutch government, including a very fancy 'ambassador's reception' in the Hague, too posh for Ferrero Rocher even!

One of the MPs on the trip was Islington's Emily Thornberry. I spent quite a bit of time talking to her as we seemed to get on OK, and she was pretty 'ordinary' informal and unintimidating among the various distinguished peers on the trip. She certainly didn't strike me as a 'snob', quite the reverse, and from what I remember our conversation was about social justice, tackling inequality and of course, cycling.

But now she has been 'exposed' as a snob for apparently taking the piss out of  jingoistic (or proud English) flag waving white van man. There is no doubt that she should not have tweeted a photograph of one individual's house, because a white van and an English flag is not (and should not be) indicative of some UKIP/BNP football hooligan mentality. But everybody has assumed that is what was intended and she has lost her job. That is perhaps because 'white van man' has become synonymous with the sort of aggressive and inconsiderate behaviour that we witness on the roads (from drivers of all sorts of vehicles), and the English flag in particular has been appropriated by far right political groups and football fans to such an extent that the champagne socialist middle classes in Islington would feel uncomfortable displaying it on the basket of their city bicycle or hybrid Toyota Prius (see its easy to stereotype by mode of transport).  I know that white van man exists in the Netherlands, I was nearly knocked off in Amsterdam once by a Heineken delivery man trying to squeeeze past where there wasn't room, and a ride in a high speed Dutch taxi can also be exciting at times. I don't know however whether a particular mode of transport in the Netherlands such as white van man or the London cabbie, quite so clearly bestows the essence of  'salt of the earth' Dutch working man although of course the bicycle is seen as part of national identity. Inevitably, some journalists had to use the 'on yer bike' headline accompanied by a cycling picture as Emily Thornberry resigned.

Modes of transport seem to matter in UK politics. Drivers of cars are always 'beleagured' by those over zealous rules about speeding and parking, and 'the war on motorists' and are rewarded with tax breaks for vehicle manufacturing and a big investment in road building. Meanwhile the NHS struggles to meet the costs of the consequences of motoring associated with road crash deaths and injuries, air pollution, congestion and obesity, while parents are terrified to let their children venture out alone.  Margaret Thatcher reputedly had a thing about buses being for losers. Anybody successful would surely be in a car. ("A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure" - although there is no reliable source for this quote). When Labour launched its more balanced transport policy the image below was typical of the reception it received in the press, and almost 20 years later Britain (with the exception of parts of central London, Brighton and Bristol) still hasn't really moved on much from this social attitude.

Former government Minister Andrew Mitchell was famously required to get off his bicycle and use the pedestrian exit from Downing Street, despite the fact that a bicycle is a 'vehicle' in law and should not be used on a footway, and he had used the vehicle exit on previous occasions. His argument with the Police cost him his job, as well as the jobs of some of the officers present. He wasn't the only stroppy cyclist however, Theresa Villiers (pictured) and Boris Johnson were among others for whom the police regularly opened the main gates although the official Police line is that the instruction is to open for cars only.

The Guardian reporting on Andrew Mitchell's unsuccessful Plebgate court case summed it up from the point of view of one of his former colleagues, the ex MP Michael Brown. "The reason that Ministers were given ministerial cars is so that they didn't get into this kind of mess. My main criticism of Andrew Mitchell is that all this Cameron bicycling nonesense is what got him into trouble."

It's often said that political and cultural attitudes have no impact on cycling and its all down to infrastructure.  I don't imagine that the bicycling royal family of the Netherlands or the many dutch politicians who cycle to work are required to get off their bikes when leaving the gates of their official buildings.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Summer Wine, Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

With the end of summer and onset of darker nights, there is always a temptation to cut back on the cycling, but with the Three Peaks looming and some very pleasant weather, September and October have been one of the best parts of 2014.

September started with some reviews of Birmingham City Centre with representatives from local cycling and pedestrian groups to help decide what to try to do to improve something that is often a pretty poor environment due to accommodating the needs of cars (see previous posts).

This was followed by a technical visit to Cambridge with staff from Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol, Oxford and Transport for London. Here we saw the famous cycle/pedestrian bridge by the station, a city centre cycle park where you can ride in and hire a pushchair while you shop with the kids, 'advanced green' traffic lights to enable cyclists to get safely across a junction ahead of other traffic and a 'Dutch style' roundabout under construction. It was traffic geek heaven, and we really did discuss one set of traffic lights for a whole hour!

the cycle counter at Jesus Green

Due to work commitments, we didn't manage a summer holiday this year, but my wife and I agreed that we would meet up in Cambridge and set off around East Anglia and then towards home. Our cycling holidays are distinctly 'old school' in that we do cycle camping, we take some maps and choose roads and campsites that 'look nice on the map'. It can be a risky strategy, particularly as I bought many of my maps in the 1980s (Barthlomews 1:100,000 are just the best ever cycling maps)! However, I am pleased to report that sleepy Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk appear to have changed very little since the maps were drawn.

I had my doubts about visiting the flatlands but as we headed east from Cambridge towards the coast there was plenty of undulation to be had.  The unexpected hills and navigating the maze of minor roads meant progress was slower than I'd anticipated and we certainly weren't going to make the coast after a late morning start. We had a rethink and stopped for afternoon tea at Lavenham, a historic market town at the centre of the mediaeval wool trade. The tourist information office gave us a list of campsites and we headed for one to the north of Stowmarket.  There was not muche evidence of a campsite when we reached the address, and we knocked on the farmer's door with trepidation. A slightly deaf elderly man answered. "Oh I used to offer camping but there's not much call for it nowadays. You can pitch in the old orchard if you like, there's a toilet and a sink in the shed."

Our campfire rice pudding that night was enriched with stewed apples and blackberries freshly picked from the orchard.

In the barn next door there were two army jeeps and a whole museum of wartime and farming memorabilia. We were given the full tour and history of the restoration of the vehicles the next morning when Mr Jubb and his mates, dressed in the full GI uniform, set off for their weekly drive for morning coffee. As the owner of a 50 year old Land Rover that occupies much of my non-cycling time under the bonnet, I had a lot of symapthy for the restoration and the enjoyment of the endless tinkering to keep these vehicles alive.

It was another late start as we set off towards the coast, aiming for Leiston Abbey and Minsmere RSPB reserve just north of the Sizewell nuclear power station. We were soon lost in the myriad lanes, and an old man on a bike caught us studying the map at a junction. It turned out he was just on his way home to Norwich after a three month tour (at the age of 83), taking him through Europe to the Czech republic and back. He was aiming to get home that day and spend his first night in a real bed since setting off with his camping gear in June!

It was a warm but slightly misty day, the sun never quite breaking through, giving an eerie silent quality to the swampy woodland and heathland. After tea and cake at the RSPB visitor centre we ventured off-road to follow a sandy bridleway north across Dunwich Heath nature reserve. I wanted to go to Dunwich because the overnight ride from London called the 'Dunwich Dynamo' is on my 'to do' list when I get the opportunity. I imagine that it must be magical to arrive for a well earned breakfast at the austere wooden cafe next to the bleak pebbly beach at dawn.

Journey's end that day was the genteel seaside town of Southwold, home of Adnams brewery. We were too late for the ferry from Walberswick so we cycled over the footbridge across the marshes and along the ramshackle harbour. This is the sort of 'posh' seaside that features in Famous Five stories, where kids wear 'gum boots' and 'mackintoshes' (albeit from Boden nowadays) and Guardian readers buy beach huts for the same price as a house in the north. It is a far cry from Blackpool, Morecambe and Scarborough where I spent my childhood holidays. There is no denying however that it is charming and pretty, and we had a fantastic meal at the harbour pub, washed down with several pints of Adnams, leading us to throw caution to the wind and pedal into the dunes for a midnight walk along the sands, with the lighthouse blinking from the town.

So it was yet another slightly hungover late start, followed with a compulsory swim in the sea and a warm up coffee, then a trip along the pier. Fortunately it was a fast and easy road to Beccles in time for a picnic lunch down by the river, enjoying the unseasonably warm sunshine. We were in Broadland, dissected by attractive rivers, streams and lakes. We crossed the River Yare at Reedham Ferry, heading for a campsite near Horning, just another ferry ride away over the River Bure, or so we thought. It had been a fairly long afternoon, we'd stocked up with food at Acle ready to stop in a few miles. But here our 30 year old maps defeated us. The Horning ferry no longer exists and we reached a dead end, looking enviously at the people in the pub just across the river and the campsite behind it, but over 20 miles away by road. Reluctantly we retraced our steps and headed towards Wroxham, resigned to two more hours in the saddle. Luck was on our side though, a roadside pub on the outskirts of Wroxham had a big field available for camping and caravans and we had a place to stay after all.

It was a chilly night, followed by another scorching day. As we set off we encountered hundreds of cyclists in the 'Tour of Norfolk' sportive. Once we were passed Coltishall and back onto minor roads we probably saw fewer than a dozen cars all day. We ended our day in Swaffham, in the Breckland area. I was once paid to devise some cycle routes in this area, based around the Peddars Way. The brief specified that we had to visit every pub in the area to check opening times and whether food was available. Tough job but somebody had to do it!

There was a heavy, almost frosty, dew when we got up the next morning. A definite hint of autumn. we spent the morning at Oxburgh Hall, a moated manor house before making our way to the Denver windmill and Denver Sluice, a massive flood prevention barrier. Heading west into fenland the landscape is Dutch, a drainage system designed by a Dutch engineer in the 18th century has created this place. Long straight roads follow the foot of dykes. Much of the agriculture was onion crops, and for miles and miles we could smell onions in the warm air, and tractors pulling vast trailers full kept passing by.

Hedgerows stuffed with fruit, sunshine and traffic-free roads, september in Norfolk.

At several points we followed or crossed the National Cycle Network, but it was of little use to us because there were no destinations on the blue signs, just a NCN route number. Very frustrating, particularly as we missed out on a quiet and shorter route over a new bridge on the the River Nene into Peterborough from Whittlesea because it just wasn't signed. I imagine the route cost £several hundred thousand, but even as a cyclist who wanted to use it, it was hidden for the sake of a few decent signs.

A week later I was invited to a cycle industry taster session at the Manchester Velodrome. Its 5 years since I last rode a track bike, but this was at least an advantage over those who had never even ridden fixed wheel. I was a bit nervous since I have some balance problems and riding in a straight line can be tricky at times, but after half an hour we all started to relax and swoop up and down the bankings. I'll never be a Chris Hoy but the 'rush' of plunging down the banking onto teh straight and into the next corner at top speed is addictive. Looking around the track we were all grinning like idiots!

Demonstrating that 'cyclo-cross' position on a track bike!

My daughter (who works at a cycle recycling place) an I visited the NEC cycle show. I have visited cycle shows fairly regularly since working in the bike trade in the 1980s. Its really interesting to see the sheer variety of bikes available now. I've seen the transition from a period where only prestige racing bikes were on offer, then almost entirely mountain bikes, the birth of the 'hybrid' and the rise of city bikes and electric bikes. I hope that this variety is evidence that cycling really is becoming universal and not just for the enthusiast.

The end of september is the culmination of preparation for the Three Peaks cyclo cross race in the Yorkshire Dales. This year we were blessed with the best ever weather, sunshine and barely a whisper of wind, and fairly dry ground on the often boggy moorlands. For five years I have been trying to dip beneath the 5 hour time for this event, and finally achieved that. A good end to a great month of cycling!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Just Grand! How to top the Grand Depart.

It's been such an exciting year for cycling in Yorkshire I worried that the Three Peaks might seem a bit of an anticlimax after Le Tour. Of course, I needn't have worried, it was just as big a day as it always is!

My 2014 Three Peaks was five years in the making, because that's how long it has taken to finally reach my goal of a sub five hour ride. I managed to get fit early in the year to take on the Fred Whitton Challenge ride in the Lake District in May, and the plan was to carry that fitness through the summer and work on the specific requirements of the Peaks. This is mainly carrying your bike up ridiculously steep hills for long periods, and riding downhill on surfaces that challenge even the most skilled riders.

My first race was 2009, but 3 punctures saw me finish in 5 hours 20 minutes. The next year I was too ill to cycle. 2011 I managed 5 hours and 7 minutes, 2012 was a battle for survival in the worst conditions and a 5 and a half hour ride. In 2013 I was still recovering from neurosurgery but going well until a sprained ankle the week before the race saw me on crutches and hopping round the race with a strapped up ankle and a butchered cycling shoe, finishing in 5 hours 18 minutes.

One big advantage of being off the drugs that I was taking up until last year is that I have lost weight, down to 67kg from 70kg, which must make a big difference up the hills. I've been logging many of my rides on strava this year and this does seem to confirm that I'm climbing better.

Preparation has not always gone smoothly. In late August I managed to get tendinitis in my forearm, so painful that I couldn't grip the handlebars and the only cure was to rest for a fortnight, right in the middle of what should have been the most intense training. Not even the dreaded turbo trainer was allowed. The last two weeks before the race also coincided with a hugely busy period at work, and what should have been a 'taper' and rest before the race ended up as a week of staying up until midnight to get various things finished.

This sort of thing can really shake your confidence and my one comfort was that strava was proving to me that I was riding as fast as ever by my own standards and also that I was doing some of the local hills as fast as some of the Yorkshire cyclo cross league regulars who regularly beat me in races. So I reached the start line on Sunday morning feeling tired but confident in my own ability.

One thing about the 'neutralised' section of the race is that it is run off at a stately 30mph, so it pays to be warmed up on the start line, and I went off up the road as far as the turn off to Simon Fell and back to open up the lungs before lining up at the back of the race. Everybody jostles to be at the front, but I don't have enough speed for a fast start, and hate being overtaken anyway. You lose time as everyone rolls out, but its easy enough to pick your way up through the field on the road and lower slopes of Ingleborough, at the same time boosting your ego by passing lots of people, and in any case the front of the bunch is a very 'twitchy' and hazardous place on the road to Horton in Ribblesdale, bringing some riders to a premature finish.

The approach to Simon Fell was lovely and fairly dry and rideable this year and for once the leaders were not even on the hill when it came into my view. I knew then that I must be doing OK, and I was managing to stay on my bike and ride lots of sections where others were off and walking. I took it steady on Simon Fell, go too hard and you end up grovelling on the next easier and more rideable sections. This tactic paid off and I had a good ride up from Rawnsley's Leap to the summit.

Over the rocky summit and jump off to pick my way down the steep grassy slope onto the footpath. Fell running pays off on this section as its a bit easier to run along until the stony track gets smooth enough to ride before diving off over the moors towards Cold Cotes. I managed two falls on the way down, one at the peat ditch that gets me every year. When will I remember its not rideable!

Another slight change of tactic, I freewheel along the lane from Cold Cotes, stuffing down flapjack and a gel and having a good drink. This means I can concentrate on riding up the valley towards Whernside. I pass a few riders on the climb out of Ingleton but then I'm on my own and as they catch me again we share the work to the turn off. There seem to be more cars than ever on the roads and we get stuck in traffic a few times along the way, hugely frustrating.

Last year I got stuck in a very slow moving queue of people walking up Whernside so I pass as many people as I can on the approach to the climb and on the wider steps at the bottom before hitting the inevitable bottleneck on the steepest section. At the top of the steps the wind is blissfully absent and its actually a relief to get on the bike and ride up to the summit, with a magnificent view down to Ribblehead over my right shoulder. Dib in, shove down more food and gel, and away down the hill.

Whernside is the descent that everybody loves to hate. The top section starts innocently enough, but then there are steps, rideable with courage but not for the fainthearted, followed by slabs punctuated with yawning gaps and boggy ditches off to the side. When that horror is over a section of rocky path awaits, with massive boulders waiting to rip out spokes and bend derailleurs. Only when you have negotiated these terrors are you rewarded with a lovely smooth gravel track to Ribblehead. I am a coward by nature, inclined to bottle it at every opportunity! I have spent much of the summer forcing myself to ride down all the worst most slippery, steep and stony paths in Calderdale to prepare me for this. I am happy to say that I rode everything except the steps, and that was mainly because there were some walkers (well that gave me an honourable excuse to dismount!). I cant say that I brought much style or panache to the descent, but I did it my way! I even passed quite a few people. One minor fall and that first twinge of cramp as I got up.

More food at Ribblehead and onto the road. I feel pretty good, but as soon as the road starts to go up the cramp starts and I'm pedalling in squares. I try standing up on the pedals but that makes things worse, so I push on and wait for the next downhill to try and get my feet out of the pedals and stretch the muscles. This happens every year. Its so annoying. I still feel good but my legs are protesting. I take the opportunity to recover a bit on the run in to Horton In Ribblesdale and then give it everything on the climb up Pen y Gent lane. My legs settle down again into a bit more of a rhythm as I get to the flatter section. I'm doing OK, passing a few more people. Everything is telling me to get off my bike, to stop the pain but I know that this is one of my 'good' sections where I am usually able to ride faster and further up the hill than some of my fellow back markers. I keep going until the path gets too steep to ride and start the steady trudge to the top, leaning on my bike for support until the steep corner that means its just a quarter of a mile more to climb. All the time I'm focusing on the rider just in front. If I can catch him before that rock. Mission accomplished. If I can get her by the top of the grass. Another one down. Just keep thinking about these small achievable steps, don't think about the distant summit just yet! Soon enough that final hill is climbed.

If Whernside is the descent that I fear, Pen y Gent seems to have the opposite effect. I once read an interview with Rob Jebb where he said he didn't use his brakes all the way down. I haven't quite reached that standard yet, but there is something about the wave of relief and the non-technical nature of the downhill that means I do always really go for it on this bit. It's not logical, because a high speed crash here would hurt far more than a lower speed crash on Whernside. Improvements to the path last year have made this whole section incredibly fast, and being towards the back of the field there are not that many riders still coming up so it is pretty much a free run. What an adrenalin rush!

Shaken up by the downhill but buzzing from the excitement of it, its a blessed relief to reach the tarmac. I'm soon brought back down to earth by the dreaded cramp, but the end is in sight and I'm soon rolling over the bridge and into the finish funnel in a time of 4:42.

OK, so Rob Jebb was at the summit of Pen y Gent by the time I got to the top of Whernside. I am no champion. But the great thing about this race is that every rider, whether in first or last place, has overcome a massive physical and technical challenge using skills, courage and sheer will power. This is the essence of the event, only a handful will ever win a prize, but everybody can achieve their personal goals.

The other thing that is so fantastic about the race is the atmosphere. A few times I felt almost tearful at the support from the crowds and the encouragement from fellow riders (well, I was pretty tired and emotional!). It is a friendly event. The organisation is fantastic and efficient but never officious. The marshalls and mountain rescue are always cheerful whatever the weather. The people on the podiums are an eclectic mix of elite riders, stars of the past, everyday club riders and thankfully an increasing number of younger riders who will keep this Yorkshire tradition going into the future.

Time to start planning for next year. What better way to celebrate being 50 than a sub four and a half hour ride.........

A Sunday in Hell - Three Peaks 2012

2012 marked my third attempt at the Three Peaks and I had a simple ambition to beat 5 hours. My first year (2009) in fairly good weather I just missed out despite 3 punctures, finishing in 5-20 after faffing around for ages trying and failing to repair my last flat on Pen y Ghent. 2011 saw my second attempt - worse weather but I was going well until I cramped really badly on the road from Ribblehead, didn't eat enough and ended up walking on some of the rideable bits of PYG, finishing in 5-07.

This year I was determined to do well and started training in March doing some fell running. This quickly confirmed I'm definitely a cyclist. My knees don't seem to have any 'springs' in them and after a while I shuffle along like some sort of weird peg man. However, I stuck with it and I can run at least 8 miles across the moors if I really have to! In April I was lucky enough to get some work (designing cycle routes!) in the Lake District which gave me a chance to ride some classic road climbs and Grizedale MTB course on my cross bike. I even managed to do two hours at Grizedale followed by the evening cross race in Todmorden park one day! Almost a professional! I was laid low by the drugs that I take for a long term illness that I have in June, but did some serious miles on the road throughout July, riding every steep local climb, seeking out all the nasty slippery cobbled climbs as well as regular cross-bike rides across the moors. At the end of July we did the Mary Towneley Loop one afternoon, a tough 40 miles with steep climbs and technical descents. All going well! An expedition to ride down through the Outer Hebrides with full camping gear in August kept the fitness going and gave us lots of headwind practice! Onto the start of the cross season and a painful reminder that I really must learn how to jump on and off my bike properly - good job I don't want any more children!

I'm lucky to live quite high up on a big hillside so its hard to avoid uphill training. My daily commute home from the railway station (with bike, bag, laptop etc) in September started to include a run up the 'Hundred Steps' in Hebden Bridge (there are actually 105) followed by a run/ride up the steep cobbled Buttress and a second set of steps towards Heptonstall village, a ride up the cobbled high street and finally get home on the edge of the moors about 600ft of climbing later!

I was pretty certain on the start line that despite the dire weather this could be my year to beat 5 hours. It didn't take long to shatter that illusion - even before the start of the climb proper at Ingleborough there was a 'new' stream crossing and soon after we were all pushing/carrying/sliding across fields that are normally rideable. So here's my account of the race.

Simon Fell is usually the scene of a 'biblical' procession of colourful riders stretching to the top, but this year all is grey/green with visibility just a few yards. Despite being on a vast hillside the overwhelming sense is of being shut inside an angry vortex of howling wind and driving rain. The only view is the feet of the person slipping in front and looking for somewhere vaguely solid to grasp and stand on for the next step. There is no queue at the famous stile this year as already the field is fragmented (mostly well in front of me!). I shout my thanks to the two heroic helpers who haul bikes across here every year. Some of the next part is rideable, but trying to steer and balance in the screaming wind is nigh on impossible. Ahead, I see a woman's bike literally blown out of her hands as she tries to shoulder it! At last we reach the grim rocky summit. On a good day the descent of Ingleborough is a real blast, bouncing over tussocky grass and charging down the steep banks. This year it is yet another torture of trotting and grinding through bog after bog, but as we emerge from the cloud there is at least a view to the bottom.

After the now traditional face plant into the mud at Cold Cotes I'm 30 mins down on my schedule. Shovel down some food and an energy gel on the downhill road. Already my legs are cramping in the cold and its actually a relief to start the climb out of Ingleton. I pick off quite a lot of riders every time the road goes uphill, and I try to jump on the wheel of any fast riders who come past. The gale force tailwind has been a help getting to Whernside and I start the rocky steps feeling good. Back up into the blackness and we're in a frustrating 'traffic jam' of idiots trying to carry a bike up a mountain! I can sense time ticking away but there isn't much scope to pass and people are constantly catching handlebars and brake levers in spokes as we crowd together. Off the steps and onto the track, which is rutted single track punctuated with big rocks. I've practised on this sort of terrain so much that I know I can ride this stuff where lots of people walk. I set off on my bike - only to be quickly blown off it again! Back on again and its the same story, but this time I land heavily on my thigh and struggle to stand up. This weather is serious and not the place to get hurt (my wife was airlifted off here in last years race!). I resign myself to a bit more pushing and carrying towards the top! It's a similar story slithering along the top part of the descent. For once however the rain has an advantage because the 'terryfying steps' and stone causeway are being constantly jetwashed by driving rain and are a lot less slippery than usual so I manage to ride most of the way and cross the drains without punctures. All is well until another rider doesn't quite move far enough over to let me pass and I plunge off the edge of the causeway and over the handlebars! Oh well, par for the course and no real damage done. Ribblehead seems a long time coming and is a welcome sight! To finish in 5 hours I need to get from Ribblehead to the finish in 1.5 hours, last year it took me that long to get from Ribblehead to the top of Pen y Ghent.

A nice person from Zipvit shoves an energy gel into my hand, reminding me that I must eat! I gobble the gel and then a banana and some flapjack. I suffered like a dog on the road to Horton last year. This year I take it in my stride, trying to control the cramp in my legs by pedalling heel down and concentrating on catching one rider after another. As Sean Kelly would say I am suffering big time. There's a bloke in front going roughly the same pace as me so I close the gap and sit on his wheel for the last couple of mile to Pen y Ghent to try to give myself a break.

I panic when I see the ford at the foot of Pen y Ghent but someone shouts keep left its rideable and for once they are not lying to get a good photo and I stay upright! I love climbing Pen y Ghent, it suits a road climber and I manage to pick off a few people on the way up and ride further up than most. Eventually the gradient gets too much and its off the bike. I can barely carry it - all that wind blowing has been twisting my back and its killing me. I push as much as I can, but the wind keeps catching the back end and blowing it across the track! I can sense myself shutting down and each step is a becoming a real challenge as my strength ebbs away. Summit at last! The cheerful marshalls congratulate me - but they are the real heroes stood there for hours on end.

The top part of the descent is on the grass and I find myself sliding uncontrollably as it gets steeper and steeper. There's no dignified way to stop so I throw myself off before I hit the rocks! A quick trot down the steep stony bit and then its onto the track. I remember reading that Nick Craig doesnt use his brakes on this bit and dare myself to do the same - but I don't have his guts or talent! I manage to pass some more cautious people, and in no time I'm back on the road. There's a sense of elation as you hit the tarmac but still a few miles to the finish and I push on as hard as I can. Every undulation brings searing pain and cramp but at last I drop round the bend and over the bridge to the finish.

It's impossible to say how you feel after such a self inflicted ordeal. Relieved and elated to finish in one piece. A sense of 'mission accomplished'. Results wise I got my best ever placing but my worst ever time. It's all irrelevant however. The real story, as for most people in the race, is knowing that I couldn't have pushed myself any harder and I survived one of the tougest years of the toughest race.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Birmingham's Secret Mini Holland

Castle Vale once had a bad reputation as a crime ridden failure of 1960s housing (see  It was notorious as a sink estate. It comprised of a mix of 8 massive identical tower blocks laid out in two lines together with a further 26 poor quality low rise high density housing blocks in a 'Radburn' layout linked by narrow pedestrian walkways separate from the roads, with large swathes of 'communal grassland' that quickly became green deserts.  The walkways (also used by cyclists)  were the venue for frequent muggings and may be one of the reasons why cycle tracks seem to be associated with crime in the British psyche. It became a no go area for Police in the 1980s, with officers being attacked.

Castle Vale is 6 miles from the city centre in the shadow of an elevated section of the M6 to the south, surrounded on all sides by major roads and railways and yet poorly served by local transport (Castle Bromwich rail station was closed in 1968 just as the new housing was almost completed!).  Birmingham City Centre is accessible only by a lengthy bus journey (and other destinations may require 2 or 3 buses), or if you have a car, by the 'Spine Road', a high speed dual carriageway built to try to regenerate the industrial wastelands in the late 1990s.  Access to employment therefore remains a problem for people without a car.  As part of the Cycle Ambition programme the City Council aims to create a continuous cycle track along the Spine Road from Castle Vale leading into the city centre.

The estate was built to house the skilled manual workers of the automotive and aircraft factories to the east of the city. Mechanisation and the gradual demise of most of the motor industry has taken its toll on this community over several decades, unemployment was up to 40% at the worst point. However, around 15 years ago it was given significant 'placemaking' treatment as part of an overall package of regeneration. The tower blocks were replaced with a mix of private sector and social housing and a new park in the middle of the estate. New jobs have been created in distribution, service and retail on some of the old industrial sites along the Spine Road, and Jaguar Land Rover now build cars on the site of the old Spitfire factory. While it still has its share of social issues, Castle Vale nowadays is a pleasant area with lots of green space, shops, decent schools and remarkably little vandalism compared to similar areas of the city. The regeneration process seems to have strengthened the community and restored pride in the area, for example the Wagtail project to create a nature reserve and footpaths/cycle trails on one edge of the estate was led by a member of the local community and largely delivered by local people.

I first visited Castle Vale around 8 years ago when I was working on regeneration of a neighbouring area. At that time it was still very new and a little bit spartan but now that the trees and shrubs have matured and some of the more garish brightly coloured post-modernist houses have faded a little it looks good.  I had quite forgotten that it has some half-decent cycle facilities that (with minor improvements) could easily be made into something comparable to a suburb in the Netherlands. Here are some key factors that make this a good environment for cycling:

1. Filtered Permeability. There is no useful direct 'through route' for motor traffic, any vehicle entering the area has to take a snaking route through the estate at 20mph on traffic-calmed roads, only to emerge around half a mile from their point of entry. So nobody goes through the residential area unless they want access to somewhere within it.  Its much easier (in a motor vehicle) to go around on adjacent main roads.

Similarly, all streets off the main route through the estate are culs de sac, so the only traffic turning in and out of the side roads is for access to that particular road.

By contrast, virtually every street has connections for pedestrians and cyclists, together with a number of dedicated green routes that run through the middle of the area to form a 'network'. The main distributor road also has continuous cycle lanes.

Additional cycle tracks connect up dead end streets through green spaces

2. Low Speeds. A 20mph limit applies throughout. This is supported by physical traffic calming (horizontal deflections, narrowings, junction treatments and speed humps). The traffic calming is further reinforced by use of textured surfacing on build-outs and by use of block paving on the access only streets to indicate low-speed shared surfaces with no separate footways.

Textured surface block paving, narrow profile, parking arrangements and speed hump at entry and exit keep speeds down within access street

3. Cycle Facilities. There is an 'almost Dutch' roundabout on Tangmere Drive, with fully separate pedestrian footways and cycle tracks, but sadly the cyclists dont get priority crossings (hard to get a decent photo to show it all but look on Google Street View!). This being Birmingham, there are few cyclists, but if numbers were to grow it would be easy to convert the roundabout to cycle/pedestrian priority with some zebra crossings.

Parallel cycle/pedestrian crossing at roundabout. These are set back about 6m from the roundabout exit so could be given priority over the road.  There are few cyclists about however, so giving cyclists priority could actually be more hazardous where drivers are not in the habit of stopping.

There are cycle lanes and tracks along the main distributor road within the estate.

Smooth transition from cycle lane to cycle track at approach to roundabout

In the central part of the development along Tangmere Drive the road narrowings at pedestrian refuges have textured paving on over-run areas for buses and other large vehicles, together with a cycle bypass. These work well.

Point where cycle track merges back to carriageway after a road narrowing is protected by a textured over-run area. Car drivers do not drive over this (buses do).
Unfortunately on the outer sections such as Park Lane (where more houses were privately owned and therefore didnt get the full regeneration treatment) the design has been copied, but simply by using paint and coloured anti-skid, and every type of vehicle just drives over without slowing down. It is a minor design change and cost saving but has a big impact on the effectiveness of the traffic calming.

Same design feature but poorly executed using paint and coloured tarmac. This has virtually no traffic calming effect. Track also enables a two-stage right turn into a cycle ttrack crossing at the traffic island as well as bypassing the narrowing.

While Castle Vale might not have the ideal cycling facilities at a detailed level, the overall principles of traffic management measures to reduce the flow of traffic, a blanket 20mph speed limit reinforced by designs that deter speeding and a connected network of direct and attractive routes for pedestrians and cyclists offers a good blueprint for what can be achieved in suburban areas. The Radburn layouts common in many provincial housing estates do at least offer the potential for space for cycling (unlike narrow Victorian streets), having wide grass verges and other open spaces, and with careful architecture and urban design interventions the oppressive walkways that were hemmed in by tall wooden fences can be opened up to be overlooked by the adjacent properties to create attractive traffic free routes.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Birmingham City Centre Site Visit 2

These notes are for the stakeholder site vist. The Cycle Ambition bid and the City Centre Cycling Strategy recognised that there are two quite clear corridors that form a 'cross' in the city. 

South to North Route into the City Centre
The first is that almost all cyclists entering the city centre from the south are funnelled into Hurst St and Hill St and up to Victoria Square. Much of this route is earmarked for public realm improvements as part of the planning gain from New St station redevelopment. It is also affected by the Metro extension which cyclists must cross.  The existing northbound central cycle lane feeder to the advanced stop line at Smallbrook Queensway was designed when almost all motor traffic went left or right and only cycles and taxis and a small number of vehicles went ahead up Hill St. A safer option would be to keep cyclists on the nearside and give them a phase to cross Smallbrook Queensway at the same time as pedestrians (similar to the contraflow on the opposite side), but this would mean cyclists experiencing similar delays to what currently happens on the southbound contraflow.

North to South Route into the City Centre

There is a similar, but less obvious route that could in future be promoted from the north via Newhall St. This would however require a short section of contraflow including works to the signalled junction at Colmore Row. Could these signals be removed and replaced with a table top junction and some zebra crossings for example?

The route would continue south onto Bennetts Hill down to New St station and out to Hill St via Stephenson St. Normally one-way, Bennetts Hill has been operating as a two-way street for the last few months during works on neighbouring Temple St. At present we have drawn up options for segregated and unsegregated contraflow - bearing in mind this is access only and will be 20mph it shouldnt really require major infrastructure.

Bennetts Hill - lower part from New St
Bennetts Hill - upper part from Waterloo St to Colmore Row

West to East Route across the City Centre
The obvious route is from Five Ways along Broad St. Broad St is not part of Cycle Ambition grant due to construction of Metro in next few years. A 'parallel' route linking Five Ways to Holliday St is therefore included.  There is a discontinuity at Paradise Forum (to be addressed in the Paradise Circus redevelopment) and then its necessary to go along Waterloo St, Temple Row, Bull St and Corporation St to Lancaster Circus. This is a straightforward route if you know it but with frequent changes of direction its far from obvious.  What is the best way to show these routes within a busy city centre?

East to West Route across the City Centre
A number of routes converge at Lancaster Circus. From here the only westbound routes are either around the Queensway (see previous notes) or via Steelhouse Lane. The route from the subway onto Steelhouse Lane is very poorly defined and appears to cross the hospital entrance. There is a temporary discontinuity at Colmore Circus but again the route through the pedestriansed section is unclear. Colmore Row then continues to Victoria Square, Paradise Circus and onwards towards  Broad St via Centenary Square. As with the eastbound route, this is a logical 'straight line' route but difficult to follow on the ground and would not really function if cycling levels were to increase as there would be too much pedestrian/cycle conflict.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Birmingham City Centre - St Chads Circus to Moor St Queensway site visit

Please note that any 'proposals' or 'potential routes' mentioned in this note will be subject to any constraints identified in the design development and subject to the outcomes of a full public consultation process. The word 'proposal' therefore refers to the ideas for a cycle route network that were set out in Birmingham's Cycle Ambition Bid.

Looking at movements around the Queensway
The site visit notes refer to potential and existing cycle routes around the Queensway and Park Street between St Chads Circus near Snow Hill and Moor St Queensway. These connections are largely on wide shared footways, typically the footway width is between 3.0m and 6.0m. Most of the footways are surfaced with concrete paving slabs. There are a number of generic issues to be considered:
  • How to 'define' that the area is available for cycling (shared footway or create a dedicated cycle track) including surfacing and waymarking.
  • If separate cycle tracks and pedestrian facilities are installed, how will the arrangements and connections to other routes work, to what extent can we achieve consistent provision when 'retro-fitting'.
  • How to accommodate bus stops and other kerbside activities where pedestrians cross a cycle track.
  • Best arrangements at subways and surface crossings where pedestrian and cycle movements have to be safely accommodated.
  • The links and transitions to various on-carriageway and off-carriageway cycle routes that meet the Queensway and Park St.
  • Can we rearrange any street furniture to minimise hazards and inconvenience for pedestrians and cyclists, including blind and partially sighted users and people using wheelchairs.

St Chads Circus Connections: This area connects routes coming in along Soho Road at Constitution Hill plus a parallel route from Newtown that enters via Summer Lane and an access to the canal towpath. For the most confident fast cyclists coming from Soho Road, Snow Hill Queensway leads straight into the city centre and is now closed to traffic except bus, taxi and cycles but the gradient and road width at the multi-lane junction is challenging and not a safe environment to mix with motor traffic, so doesn't presently cater for most people. There is also a signed cycle route on Lionel St off Constitution Hill that leads towards Paradise Circus.  As part of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution (BCR) canal route works, the link from the canal towpath access at Cliveland St to the subways under the Queensway at Little Shadwell St (in the 'Gun Quarter') and Loveday St (leading to Lancaster Circus) will be signed.  The subway by little Shadwell St provides a grade separated crossing of Queensway and access to Steelhouse Lane via Whitall St, leading towards the Childrens hospital and Law Courts.

St Chads Circus requires cyclists to cross two lanes of traffic to go from Constitution Hill into the city and vice versa.
It would make sense to permit shared use on all of the wide footways between Lionel St, St Chads circus, and Lancaster Circus to offer connections between all of the routes and local attractors. The area between St Chads and Lancaster Circus is generally not busy with pedestrians although there are two hotels, the Salvation Army Hostel and St Chads Cathedral all of which generate some pedestrian traffic throughout the day. The main issue in this section therefore is less about managing conflicts and more about making coherent routes and waymarking that is easy for pedestrians and cyclists to follow. Street furniture effectively halves the width of the available footway in places, and there is a bus stand layby (not a bus stop). A 'half height' or hybrid cycle track could be constructed here if street furniture was moved, but this may be more tempting for drivers to use as a place to stop, and would need to be discontinued and revert to shared surface by the subways and other localised narrowings. This arrangement could add significantly to street clutter and maintenance costs in terms of additional signs and tactile paving compared to a simple shared footway.

Sign posts, lamp columns and advertising poles within the wide footway on St Chads Queensway near Lancaster Circus.

Footway width reduces on the approach to Lancaster Circus subway although none of the adjacent buildings has entrances onto this footway.
Lancaster Circus Connections: Lancaster Circus forms a 'gateway' to the city centre for pedestrians and cyclists by providing grade separation at the intersection of the A38, A34 and the Queensway. Links to the canal towpath at Newtown Row and Corporation St are being improved as part of BCR. There is some existing provision for cyclists along the A34 Newtown Row in the form of shared footway, cycle lanes and bus lanes and a toucan crossing. Routes along Corporation St are proposed to be improved as part of the BCR 'Lichfield Road' corridor. A 'parallel' route is proposed to come into the city via Lister St and through the Aston campus to Aston St. The proposed main cross-city centre cycle route towards Paradise Circus and Broad St uses Steelhouse Lane (and Corporation St for the reverse).  There is an existing busy toucan crossing of James Watt Queensway (from BCU to Steelhouse Lane).

Issues to consider around Lancaster Circus and James Watt Queensway:
  • There are some busy bus stops in this area close to the University where space is most constrained.
  • The air ambulance stops outside the Childrens Hospital.
  • Connections between the carriageway and Lancaster Circus subways are not well defined for cyclists.
  • The footways along James Watt Queensway are 'shared use' but not well connected - for example no clear route to/from Dale End which has a pedestrian only crossing, no surface markings to indicate shared areas.
  • Two-way cycling is required on both sides of James Watt Queensway (to link to Dale End and Jennens Rd) so any dedicated space for cycling would need to be wide enough to accommodate this.
  • There is a lot of pedestrian activity on this section, although the pedestrian movements along the road generally coincide with direction of travel of cyclists and there are few frontages direct onto the footway so not as much potential for conflict apart from at bus stops.
This toucan crossing at James Watt Queensway near Steelhouse Lane and Corporation St is often busy with pedestrians and cyclists in term time. Further along towards Dale End, there is a lot of street furniture and an unused bus layby, and the shared surface terminates with no connection into Dale End. There is no priority for pedestrians and cyclists at the exit from Corporation St onto the Queensway although the flows probably significantly outnumber motor traffic.
Dale End to Jennens Road and Curzon St Connections: Dale End leads to the High St shopping area of the city centre. There is an entrance to the University campus (Coleshill St) with a toucan crossing of the Queensway immediately south-east of Dale End. The main road route to Nechells Parkway starts at Jennens Road. It is proposed to upgrade crossings of the ring road around Curzon Circle to toucan crossings and to improve links to Landor St as parts of the parallel route network. there is a link to the canal towpath off Curzon St. There is a shared pedestrian/cycle path in Eastside Park leading to Curzon St and existing toucan crossing of Park St.

Issues to consider in this section:
  • The north-east footway of Queensway is shared use (part of the 'City Ring' signed route). There is a toucan crossing over Jennens Road.
  • There is a gap in the cycle route between Jennens Road and Eastside Park (near Bartholomew Row). i.e. it is legal to cycle as its part of the shared use but the space is physically not well arranged.
  • Park St/Masshouse Lane/Moor St Queensway form a gyratory system. Cyclists using the carriageway need to move into the offside lanes in busy/fast traffic for some manouevres - for example to go from from Moor st Queensway to Jennens Road.
  • The route is not very legible, apart from the toucan crossings it just uses the original footways with a few blue signs.
  • There are a few physical pinch points where cyclists and pedestrians are funnelled together around the toucan crossings.
The shared footway from James Watt Queensway to Jennens Road has lots of sign poles. The number of cable ducts visible in the photograph may indicate that construction of a new path to provide dedicated space for cycling could be expensive.
A 'gap' in the shared footway between Jennens Road and Eastside Park.

Paving slab symbol used to supplement upright signs at Eastside Park

Park Street to Moor St Queensway Connections: The cycle route from Eastside Park continues over Park St on a toucan crossing, crosses Masshouse Lane and round in front of La Tour hotel up the pedestrianised section of Albert St to link to Moor St Queensway.  There are toucan crossings on Moor St Queensway, one between Albert St and Masshouse Lane and one just west of Albert St. Albert St leads to the High St and Bullring shopping centre. Signed cycle routes from Digbeth enter the city centre at Fazeley St (includes the Ward End Route, links to Bordesley, the Stratford Road Parallel and links to the Rea Valley route via Digbeth). there is also a link to the Grand Union Canal towpath.  Moor St station, New St station and the proposed HS2 terminal at Curzon St are all in the vicinity.

Issues to consider in this section:
  • The route between Eastside Park and Albert St is discontinuous and hazardous at the crossing of Masshouse Lane and in front of the hotel entrance.
  • The junction of Fazeley St and Park St is hazardous.
  • Speed of traffic on the park St gyratory system is intimidating for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • There is poor visibility at some of the informal pedestrian crossings on Park St and at the zebra crossing on Fazeley St.
  • There is no clear route between Albert St (on the city centre side) and the toucan crossings.
  • There are conflicting movements between pedestrians and cyclists on Moor St Queensway due to access from car parks and bus stops.
  • Inadequate waymarking to and from the city centre.
No clear route to Albert St past the door of the La Tour hotel

Visibility at dropped kerb crossing of Park St is obscured by street furniture and bus shelter

No defined space for cyclists along Moor St Queensway
Moor St Queensway footway gets very busy near bus stops and car park
Considerations: Good practice guidance would suggest that all routes offer separate pedestrian/cycle facilities rather than shared use. Would this work around bus stops? Are subways or surface crossings better? Should we replace all paving slabs with tarmac or does the uneven ride help remind cyclists to slow down within the central area? Can we take sufficient space from carriageway for two-way cycling where necessary? Can/should we replace 'toucan' crossings with parallel ped/ cycle crossings? If we can't have road sign poles within footway/cycle track how do we accommodate them? To what extent can we reduce the street furniture - what can we remove? 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Easy Riding in the Lake District - thanks to the Local Sustainable Transport Fund

Occasionally a ‘must win’ brief drops through the letter box. In 2012 I received an invitation to tender from the Lake District National Park – ‘The consultant must be prepared to cycle all on and off road routes in the study area during the month of March’.
The Lake District National Park (in partnership with Cumbria Tourism and Cumbria County Council) received money from the DfT Local Sustainable Transport Fund to encourage healthy and sustainable travel and tourism within the area. Our job was to try to identify some circular cycle routes that would appeal to a wide variety of users. We set out to 'grade' the routes to give an indication of difficulty (based on gradient, traffic danger, technical trails or remote areas) and also to improve the signing. This was to help eliminate confusion over terms such as 'permitted path', 'bridleway', 'byway' etc that don't give a good indication of what users are allowed on which paths.
Simplified and consistent signing of off-road routes was co-ordinated with standard highway signs

One of the problems of the area (from a cycling perspective) is that it tends to be extreme; extreme gradients, difficult off-road technical trails, and extreme levels of traffic on some roads. At first glance, the cycling offer only appeals to real enthusiasts. However, take a closer look and there are many roads, paths and trails that largely run along the flatter lake sides and valleys. These routes, in combination with taking a bike on ferry services and bike-buses enables a circular trip that doesn’t involve busy roads, and the views from the ferry or the bus are excellent.

The car traffic associated with tourism is responsible for the majority of carbon dioxide and other air pollution in UK National Parks. Over 90% of visitors typically arrive by car, however this is not the major problem, and with relatively poor rail connections it would be difficult to alter this. The main issue is the short local journeys that occur within the National Park during a visit, sometimes in combination with inconsiderate parking on local roads.

People often move from one attraction to another, spending just 20-30 minutes in each place before moving on. Congestion can quickly build on narrow roads, and towns and villages become clogged as drivers look for a parking space. To save money, many day visitors bring a car full of food from home, so a day visitor brings relatively little money into the local economy.  Considerable expense is required to build and maintain the roads and car parks, as well as hidden costs of environmental damage and road accidents.

Sustainable transport solutions developed for the LSTF aim to replace some of those short local trips by more time spent on bicycles or on foot, so the car stays in one place for longer, easing congestion and minimising its impact. At the same time, because people are travelling more slowly they explore in greater detail and spend more money in local businesses. Cycle routes themselves can be a catalyst for new business and employment in catering, accommodation and cycle hire, often in quieter locations that are away from the main ‘honeypot’ attractions.

Advantages of more people cycling and walking in rural areas include:

·    Greater numbers of people able to access ‘hot spots’ such as Beatrix Potter’s house, where car parking capacity is limited.

·    Cars spend more time in one place, reducing the number of short car trips during the day, as their occupants explore the area by bike instead. This is better for pollution and congestion.

·    People travelling on foot and by bike tend to spend more money locally on refreshments and accommodation.

·    Organised activities such as cycling and walking festivals can be promoted around the infrastructure to extend the visitor season and to attract mid week visitors.

·    Cycle routes can be a way to attract visitors into quieter parts of the National Park that don’t have so much traffic.

A couple of weeks ago I pedalled up to the Lake District one afternoon along the Lancashire/Yorkshire border, sampling local delicacies along the way....

Lancashire Lunch - butter pie and eccles cakes

and next day went to the 'grand opening' of one of the improved routes, where Wiggo and Cav were on hand to do the honours!

Wiggo and Cav wave us off
VIP ribbon cutting!

The route from Ambleside to Langdale is typical of the issues that we tried to address within the study. The first problem is getting out of Ambleside, which is seemingly surrounded by busy main roads. However, there is a ‘secret’ quiet lane called Under Loughrigg at the far side of the village park. From here it’s possible to access bridleways leading to Rydal and Grasmere (currently being improved for cycling), or in our case, to turn onto a short section of cycle track alongside the A593 towards Coniston. Where topography constrains the road into a narrow corridor, cycle lanes on the carriageway have been provided. A short track over an attractive old footbridge leads into Bog Lane, a very quiet road that links to Skelwith Bridge.

At Skelwith Bridge we entered into the National Trust land across Elterwater meadow and alongside the river to Elterwater village. Here the path has been widened, resurfaced and realigned to help prevent flooding. The new flatter, smoother surface is also more accessible to both pushchairs and wheelchair users and others who would struggle to cope on uneven surfaces. This is increasingly important as a high proportion of existing visitors are older people who still want to be able to access the countryside, and the National Park also wishes to broaden its appeal to attract more young families with children, as well as younger people with a sense of adventure. This kind of easy access with a spectacular view is exactly what we were aiming to achieve within the project.

The lovely widened, level path through Elterwater meadow

The route continues along minor roads and tracks to The 'Wainwright Bridge' which connects to a new section which gets a bit more hilly, with a deviation up the side of the hill to the quarry, before skirting along the hillside and dropping back across the fields to the  Stickle Barn.
Exhilerating swoop down the fell side before crossing the meadows to the Stickle Barn pub for lunch.

Identifying the route was of course the easy part. The hard work has subsequently been done by the Lake District National Park in partnership with the Cumbria Tourism, National Trust, Cumbria Council and the local land owners, to negotiate, design and construct the trail. The project costs were about £100,000 to create the new paths and upgrade existing paths. A substantial amount of the money stayed within the local economy. The stone and surfacing for the paths was sourced from the Elterwater Quarry (Burlington Stone, owners of the quarry, also permitted the route to run through their land) and some of the construction was undertaken by a local farmer following a successful tendering process. In addition to creating local employment, local contractors bring substantial practical experience of creating paths that can withstand the extreme weather. Particularly dealing with the volume of water coming off the hillsides which must pass beneath the path if possible to avoid the  surface being washed away.

The path to Langdale is just one of many routes being developed. Along with the physical infrastructure other innovations in the overall 'Go Lakes Travel' programme include bike-carrying buses, an electric bike hire scheme and a range of promotional maps and events to highlight the routes and the attractions that they serve. Exploring the area by bike for the study has certainly changed my perception and, with the route improvements, it is now possible to visit one of the country's busiest national parks and yet spend many hours virtually traffic free either on or off-road. For more information about cycling in the area visit the  Go Lakes Travel and  Lake District National Park  websites.