Friday, 5 September 2014

Addicts at the wheel

Last weekend was the fourth Scarborough Festival of Cycling.  Most of the events take place up on Oliver's Mount  which has a great big field in the middle for grass track racing and a smooth road circuit that can easily be closed to traffic. The racers who come like the road circuit because, unlike most closed circuits in the UK, it has a great big hill. This means that at long last the hill climbers get a chance to laugh at the sprinters. 

Unfortunately, whilst it might be titled the Scarborough Festival of Cycling it could more properly be called The Festival of Cycling at Scarborough because we've never really managed to connect the events to the town itself and most of the participants and spectators, the participants families and friends, come from elsewhere. This year an attempt was made to bring the event off the Mount and into the town itself with a Family Bike Ride on the Saturday morning. But, because the powers that be tend to see cycling as a dangerous activity, especially when it involves children and traffic, we were obliged to start at 7.30am. All praise to the 40 or so that turned up but making special efforts to drag children out of bed at 6.30 was never likely to have enormous public appeal. To put it simply we were intimidated off the roads not just by the fear of traffic but also by the fear of motorists response if something seemed to be getting in their way.

If you look at transport planning guidelines it's usual for there to be a well defined hierarchy of road users. Typically this means that the needs of pedestrians should be put before those of cyclists, public transport users and motorists, in that order. In Scarborough, the main road from the west meets the sea at the end of the West Pier and there's a road junction with the road that runs along the sea front. At this junction not only are pedestrians keep to the narrow footpath (sidewalk for Americans) by fences but the pedestrian crossings are split so that you have to go through a cage in the middle of the road. These cages are quite narrow and clearly fail what some urban designers call the double buggy test; could two double buggies, those with children side by side, get past each other. A few years back when the road that runs past the rest of the harbour was given a face lift (wider pavements, more seating, improved lighting) the cages at the junction were left unaltered. Some of us bemoaned this wasted opportunity only to be told that they had considered doing something but that it was felt it would "interfere with the traffic". So, despite there being a well defined hierarchy of road users the old hierarchy had subtly reasserted itself.

At another meeting I attend I mentioned this reassertion of the traditional hierarchy to a senior official in the County Council. To my surprise he agreed with my analysis. The gloss was somewhat taken off this when, later in the meeting, he announced his retirement. Clearly what was an acceptable position when about to leave office hadn't been when he was fully in post.

On other occasions, at other public meetings to discuss how we might improve public space in the town, the one thing that really tended to raise the hackles of the participants was any suggestion that there might be additional controls on parking. Whilst they wouldn't want to think of themselves as such, the vehemence of the response bore all the hallmarks of a group of addicts being threatened with the withdrawal of their fix.

The problem, as far as sensible planning policy is concerned, one that genuinely puts the needs of pedestrians first, is that the majority of people involved in the decision making are themselves, to a lesser or greater degree, auto addicts. 

So, if you never leave the house without the car keys, find yourself using a car for journeys of less than a mile when you haven't got much to carry, worry about whether there'll be a parking space close enough to the shops, don't know how long it would take to walk to the station or are surprised to find that other people have walked for half an hour to get to the place you've driven to, then, if you haven't got a serious health problem, it's likely you're an addict too.

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