Are Councils Failing Cyclists?

From mid-March, when PM Boris Johnson closed schools and urged people to work from home and avoid non-essential travel, the volume of road traffic fell sharply across the country. It plummeted further when full lockdown was imposed. 

One immediate effect was a measurable drop in air pollution across the country. Already in early April, reports were being filed that levels of nitrogen dioxide – the main pollutant from car exhaust emissions – had halved at particular roadside locations. Later that month, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an independent research organisation, issued a study calculating that there had already been 11,000 fewer “pollution” deaths across Europe as a result, including over 1,750 in the UK.

PICTURE: Dave Young

Lead author of the CREA study, Lauri Myllyvirta, commented that the fall in air pollution had reduced pressure on health services at an important time and shown how much of a difference air quality improvements can make. But he also drew wider conclusions. 

“I hope this will make people think: ‘What if we had this sort of air quality not because everyone is forced to sit at home, but because we managed the shift to clean transport and energy?’ We have to hope this virus helps us to move forward in fighting climate change and other bigger challenges, rather than taking us back.”

A second effect, perhaps connected with the first, has been a wave of increased enthusiasm across the country for cycling, both as a leisure activity when other ways of taking exercise were not permitted, and as a means of key workers commuting to work over short distances. According to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, 1.3 million bikes have been purchased in the UK since the start of the pandemic, a period which has coincided for the most part with fine, dry weather. Local bike sellers in Hastings have confirmed the spike in their sales and noted the rise in demand for second-hand machines too.

Safer Space

Cycling groups were quickly making contact with Hastings Borough Council (HBC) to lock in the benefits of air quality improvement while also promoting ideas of providing more safe space – wider pavements, better-controlled junctions and other infrastructure – for walking and cycling in the town centres of both Hastings and St Leonards.

“Cones, planters as temporary bollards, suspension of push buttons at pedestrian crossings, and experimental or temporary traffic orders can be done quickly and easily,” says Tim Godwin of Bike Lab Hastings, “and many other towns and cities are showing this.”

He says that HBC Climate Change cabinet member Cllr Maya Evans endorsed a proposal to ‘cone off’ extra pedestrian space on a number of roads, including parts of London Road, Bohemia Road, Queens Road and the High Street, to allow safer social distancing while queuing and more space for walking, away from traffic danger; and an approach was made on 15th April to lead council officers and councillors Kim Forward, Colin Fitzgerald and others, for their support to take the proposal on to East Sussex County Council (ESCC), which has responsibility for highways. But the response came back a week later from HBC: no action was to be taken nor requested from the county council.

Active Travel Fund

Nationally, on the other hand, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps seemed ready to fall into line. On 9th May he unveiled a £250m Emergency Active Travel Fund which, though initially focussed on immediate adaptations of the transport network, is also aimed at a longer-term shift.

“Following unprecedented levels of walking and cycling across the UK during the pandemic,” said Mr Shapps, “the plans will help encourage more people to choose alternatives to public transport when they need to travel, making healthier habits easier and helping [to] make sure the road, bus and rail networks are ready to respond to future increases in demand.

“Far more people will be cycling and walking,” he predicted. “Pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors will be created in England within weeks. 

“Vouchers will be issued for cycle repairs, to encourage people to get their old bikes out of the shed, and plans are being developed for greater provision of bike fixing facilities.”

PICTURE: Dave Young

County Council Allocation

On 29th May it was announced that the share of the £250m emergency fund allocated to East Sussex County Council (ESCC) for these purposes would be £2,395,000. Of this sum the first 20%, amounting to £479,000, would be released within a month or less “to support the installation of temporary projects for the Covid-19 pandemic”, including consideration of road closures, widened footways, pop-up cycle lanes, temporary cycle parking and social distancing signage – for details, see our adjacent column. The immediate aims would be:

• to enable more people to walk and cycle, and to replace bus journeys where possible; and

• to support safe social distancing in areas where people congregate, such as within town centres, high streets or at transport hubs or bus stops.

It seems that a second tranche, containing the balance of £1,916,000, will be released “towards the end of the summer”, subject to the Department for Transport (DfT) approving detailed ESCC proposals for “the creation of longer-term projects”. These will, according to the council, “install further, more permanent measures to cement walking and cycling habits, and where applicable enable the implementation of schemes identified in the draft East Sussex Local Cycling & Walking Infrastructure Plan”.

With substantial external funding now in the offing but a very sharp deadline of 5th June for submission of first tranche proposals, ESCC canvassed ideas from local groups including Hastings Urban Bikes, Hastings Greenway Group, Transition Town Hastings and Living Streets. Tim Godwin is very unimpressed with the council’s response. 

“Absolutely none of the ideas submitted by us for Hastings have been acted upon,” he says. “Bexhill, which has half the population, has significantly more proposed interventions. Eastbourne, which has a similar population size, also has significantly more proposed interventions. Even Rye gets a road closure. 

“Those of us who provided local ideas for active travel are furious with what has happened, and cannot understand the reasoning for doing so little here. ESCC’s own research shows that 55% of people employed in Hastings and St Leonards walk, cycle or take public transport to their place of work. Given this, it is puzzling why they have chosen to do so little in this town to create more safe space for these people.”

Second Tranche

Might Hastings do rather better under the second tranche, which has four times as much funding behind it? Mr Godwin is pessimistic.

“My impression, from DfT publicity and from conversations with people at ESCC, is that the emergency funding is being delivered in two tranches: to see things implemented immediately and then built upon with more significant and permanent measures. This is what is happening in other towns, boroughs and cities around England. Leicester, Hackney and Liverpool are good examples. 

“Essentially, local authorities should be building ‘pop up’ active travel infrastructure fast, to be able to take immediate advantage of the desire to walk and cycle, then modifying, improving and making it permanent, by learning from the results of the implementation. It is hard to see how what is proposed for Hastings can be built upon, as it is so minor and insignificant.

What if we had this sort of air quality not because everyone is forced to sit at home but because we managed the shift to clean transport and energy?

“ESCC seem to think that they can use the funding for existing shared cycling and walking routes (some planned for in excess of a decade ago?) that will not make significant changes to local road layouts. This seems against the intention of the DfT funding. As Grant Shapps states: “The government expects local authorities to make significant changes to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians.”

“I have virtually no hope of seeing ESCC or HBC doing anything significant to enable or promote active travel in Hastings & St Leonards. I’ve been going to meetings with both bodies over the eight years I’ve lived here, and there is no political will at either council to do anything. Campaigners I know have been requesting some of the infrastructure changes for 20 years. At Bike Lab Hastings over the last two months, we have provided 31 bikes for free to local keyworkers, mainly people working in the NHS and care provision. Most of these people haven’t cycled for some time but were tempted to do so by the quiet and safe roads during lockdown. They deserve and need safer roads to enable them to continue.”

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