4 more days

So East Lothian Council is running a series of consultation and action planning events as part of its wider ‘East Lothian on the Move’ active and sustainable transport initiative. If like me you missed the bus, there’s a few days left to respond. Respond now.

The survey poses some fascinating and interesting questions that I have tried to respond to online, but the questions were somewhat leading, with a rather staid repertoire of prescriptions as if these are things you can vote on, so I thought I would drop Peter Brett a line. Off the shelf recipes, which I feel let local authorities off the hook and avoid the harder decisions to plan out the car.

It will be interesting to see what people say about active transport and public transport round here. No doubt parking charges won’t feature very highly among local priorities, much like turkeys voting for xmas – they won’t! I do expect better rural public transport services (bus and train) to feature highly though. Despite some recent improvements, they’re small and there is a hellova lot further to go.

Having reflected on the problems there has to be something a bit more radical to effect the transformational changes (the modal shifts) that are necessary, over and above a few percentage points ordinary behaviour change initatives generate. A little bit more info here and few more signs there (there’s already too much and too many and that in itself confuses and acts a barrier) just won’t cut it. Structural changes are demanded.

My feeling is that sustainable transport problems are accentuated in predominantly rural areas whether or not they are remote and more challenging than in cities. Especially while there are policies that encourage and perpetuate suburban style development in sites, which by dint of location and to a considerable extent our modern lifestyles mean that most people are even more reliant on the car than in cities, which by contrast usually benefit from seemingly more efficient transport networks. If you’re already doing a 40 to 60 minute commute most days, the short journeys that you’re trying to get behaviour change on are even more likely to be done by car. You may have less time, or its not even on your radar – we all feel that we act rationally but the tyranny of small decisions generally dictates that undesirable outcomes emerge from seemingly small and inconsequential acts of self interest.

Choice, and this idea seems to be embedded in PAN 75, seems to over-emphasise supply side measures like parking. There’s reams of guidance, and therefore decisons, which quite literally hard-wire the motor car into our lives for generations to come. The guidance on over other aspects seem light weight or only discretionary or in areas which the planners either have little or no inclination to develop (they were educated before this sustainability malarkey was fashionable) or are actually powerless to do much about (public transport deregulation and privatisation), or over reasonable political time scales (an administration), not withstanding the strictures of local government finance (which I don’t see ending anytime soon). So, there are too many recent developments, which barely reflect the new street design guidelines. Locally I can only think of one where attention has been paid to them, and it was not a private one.

Although most of the high level policies are OK, there’s a gap between the rhetoric and the practice (some are actually rather good), so we find the ‘same old same old’ styles of development that result in whole communities with no shops or amenities nearby, car centric wide and well-lit roads which despite targeted measures to kill speed – still have no kids at play, with more spaces for parking than for gardens, greenspace or other public realm improvements, leaving aside the strangely silent but obligatory prison like playparks that keep sprouting up. Maybe all this is to be generations in the making, but one senses the urgency of the policy thinking and making is now, not to achieve something better in 30-40 years time.

Now, what if one could hardwire sustainable and active transport options in practice that could be interesting? I would personally throw out the car parking policies in their entirety and rewrite them. This seems unlikely, but they surely could be severely tempered. Public investment, which should be used as an economic driver, not as a last resort, would also be a good thing. Take the supported bus services, which around here at least have become just that, a third class form of transport for those who have no other choice. They provide few network benefits (like linking people to interchanges, making it easy for young people to get around, making it easier to work and shop locally), are poorly patronised by locals (older folk and hard up mainly) and tourists alike, despite the costly public subsidy to run them. I dare say that offering a free taxi to the needy might be a cheaper option, and some of us older folk happy to accept to be charged. A lot of unnecessary transport expenditure and maintenance could be ditched, with less regular mowing regimes (wildlife might celebrate), reduced lighting regimes (the climate change worriers might sleep better at night), road maintenance renewal regimes relaxed (especially when they are not a priority – like yellow lining the countryside). I could think of many more.

So if investment in public transport is going to be at the margins and therefore have marginal benefits, what else? What measures could hardwire greater sustainability into active transport? Here’s some thoughts:

  • Harsher policies to kill speeds in our towns and villages. In Fife every High Street along the coastal route is 20mph. Unless you override the SatNav speeding nag option this could have a big impact increasing short journey time by a third – that would be a drag;
  • Make the car as inconvenient as possible – so that it is the last resort (for when it is raining cats and dogs.) Rather than have it as the first choice we could reduce on-street parking on High Streets, reserve it for residents as other authorities do, plus it would be trivial to implement compared to reconfiguring our housing stock; and
  • Restrict parking generally. Just imagine for a moment any city you love in Italy returning to the 1970s and the unfettered access to cars and chaos then – you’d probably not be so eager to return because it was a no less than a bloody nightmare;
  • Make car clubs a compulsory option for all sorts of new developments and introduce tax breaks for those that go car-free. Car clubs are actually a great alternative for a great number of people and more affordable too than owning under a number of scenarios;
  • Reign in the excesses of the convenience economy. This unfortunately encourages a lot of those short car journeys and extends them into the evening. Convenience seems to be killing us with one hand (fags, sugar and booze) and robbing us with the other (in exchange for the fantasy of becoming a lottery winner or satisfying any indulgence almost instantly).

Some of these options would be deeply unpopular, but so is austerity, poor pay, and whole load of other things if you think about it but somehow we accept.

In order to get people walking and cycling, we need more than just information about how good it is for us, for no one wants patronising tosh from people who don’t even practice what they preach or to be prosyletised by converts. People DO need to know and feel that it is reasonably safe to visit their high street as well as it being a lot more inviting, cleaner and better maintained, but that is perhaps another story. Locally we have a vibrant cycling community, but very few come anywhere near the High Street (or stick to the wide pavements) because it is perceived as dangerous (the stats may contradict this, but they only record accidents, not the near misses which occur aplenty).

So how how to engineer a safer street? Could we designate cycle friendly roads and even cycle friendly country roads? That would kill my speed! We seem to have lots of policies and designations that favour golf, but why not policies that favour cycling (long distance routes aside)? Obviously a few less cars hunting down the last onstreet car parking space would really help. You’d probably need to remove a good number of the onstreet parking places, giving them over to residents, which would reduce turnover (in every other local authority resident parking is the norm). You’d make also it difficult to manouvre by car. Wide roads would be narrowed, perhaps with the addition of cycle lanes; wide junctions tightened; mini roundabouts replaced with old fashioned junctions) and engineer parking arrangements that are tricky to use (e.g. half herringbone), a great deterrent to timid drivers.

The policies and practices that allow the smooth flow of cars, like clearways and one-way systems merely encourage drivers to speed ahead, could be reversed to allow the smooth flow of pedestrians instead. Where there are lights, these should react more or less instantly to pedestrians rather than make them wait and take their chances. Make the motorist wait. They’ll think twice about taking the car next time.

You might make more room for delivery vehicles, which are an increasing hazard, caveat though that many are servicing the convenience economy that feeds all these unnecessary journeys. These delivery vehicles frequently cannot park safely, but ELC take no account of this in their policies for permitting and regulating high street retail (a big hidden benefit of out of town retail is the ease of servicing, fewer journeys and the reduced social/environmental impact).

On commuter routes, along the coastal road e.g. you would definitely ensure the cycleways are continuous and safe. As soon as the road narrows, the cyclists take their life in their hands as the safe zone is removed. This may be fine if you’re a hard-core cyclist, but it is big deterrent for less confident cyclists, or the young or the old.

Creating a more inviting public realm and more space for plants and trees would be welcome and a help too, people might want to linger longer and hang around & talk, rather than get away as quickly as possible. Big wide open spaces might look great to 60s planners (it is safe to have a pop at them?), but lack the kind of intimacy that makes places interesting.

In order to get people to use public transport more, services just need to improve. Network connections for a start. There are a great number of locations that are not reachable easily or cause inconvenience because they’ve been designed around operator convenience. Interchange facilities must work a great deal better. Regular and dependable services are needed that are fit for the 21stC. Beat up 15 year-old buses that are constantly failing to arrive at their destinations or pumping out diesel fumes and noise, are no encouragement to anyone. Yes, the Council should provide all the information about transport options rather than letting the market provide it. And it should attend to dirty old bus stops. Turn your attention first to the important ones located on or near High Streets, which are often plain unsavoury – foregive the pun. And no more white elephants, like information panels that tell you “the next bus to X will be tomorrow or left 2 minutes earlier – fancy a takeaway instead?”).

Increasing the pain of car driving seems to me to be good strategy for cities and so it could be in rural towns and villages. Increasing uncertainty may be annoying, but the implications are interesting. Uncertainty about traffic volumes, where to park, increasing the complexity of the parking regimes, the threat of wardens, mixing residents parking (by permit – not free) with paid visitor parking, and anything that perpetuates local myths about how dreadful the traffic / parking is helps!

But as the TNT delivery driver stated to me just now (he was dangerously parked on a junction, while obstructing a bus stop and pedestrian desire line – all so that he didn’t have more than 10 yards to hand over a pair of admittedly rather heavy active monitors), this ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. I fear he is probably right.


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passionate about the new and the old, but only if it is any good