So the scandalously inappropriate and inadequate designs for the Bedford turbo roundabout have come a step closer to construction, receiving DfT approval, and with grim inevitability Sustrans have proudly press released their support for this barefaced misappropriation of cycling funds for the construction of a high capacity motor road junction in an urban centre. Their defence of the scheme seems to be that, because they anticipate that motorist speeds will probably be a bit lower than in the current arrangement, cyclists will be able to “take the lane” as they ride amongst the heavy motor traffic; and if people do not wish to take the lane then they will instead be allowed to pootle on a pavement designed for pedestrians. A dual provision of equally, but differently, unattractive prospects.
But they’ll be less awful than what is there now.
And that seems to be enough for Sustrans. No need to fight for anything better, if it’s less awful than what’s there now then it gets the Sustrans stamp of approval. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect anything more from Sustrans after years of being ground down by the conditions in which they’re trying to operate, but “better than nothing” seems to be the limit of their aspirations in everything they do these days. On the National Cycle Network, where signposting flights of steps, heavily eroded sheep tracks, and private roads marked “no cycling” is for misguided reasons considered better than having no signed cycle route at all. And in the latest edition of their design guidance, where, for example, such guidance is given as to paint bicycle symbols on the carriageway at pinch points caused by traffic islands — rather than simply to stop squeezing bicycle users in with motor traffic in such a way — because such symbols are taken to be better than nothing.
I’m not convinced that paint on busy roads is in the slightest bit better than nothing for cycling. I think it’s delusional — or colossally gullible, perhaps — to believe that putting a piece of trunk road engineering in a city centre is worth anything at all for cycling. And I think that luring people onto heavily eroded sheep tracks is far worse than nothing for cycling.
But I don’t have time to argue about the specifics of cases like these, and I shouldn’t have to. Rather I have a more general point to make.
Things that are a marginal, almost imperceptible, or questionable improvement on what is there now are not better than nothing.
Marginally reduced speeds and crap shared footways are not better than nothing when they’re being employed in the theft of half a million pounds from the budget.
Rebuilding a junction to a design that you hope, maybe, might make things marginally less bad than they were, is not better than nothing if it means perpetuating a fundamentally anti-cycling and traffic dominated town centre for perhaps another fifty years.
Mediocre guidance is not better than nothing if it’s used in place of genuinely good guidance — if the Sustrans brand allows professionals to dismiss the recent London and Cambridge guidance as foreign or utopian when all that the cyclists themselves say they want and need is some paint at a pinch point.
Signing inappropriate cycle routes is not better than nothing if they give aspiring bicycle users an even worse experience of cycling than they would get from following their streets. They are worse than nothing when they are cited as an example of cycling already having been catered for and nothing more needing to be done.
Better than nothing is not good enough. Marginal gains aren’t good enough.
That’s one reason I’ve never got all that into local campaigning, much though I appreciate and admire those who do have the energy to do so. I don’t actually think it’s worth my time. I don’t think the tiny single victories are ever worth it. Call me selfish but I don’t think that one shared pavement that allows half a dozen or so additional kids to get to school by bike is worth it. I don’t think the lighting on that one path in the park that makes a couple more people feel safe getting home by bike at night is worth it. I don’t think that one bike lane that keeps one pensioner riding to the shops for an extra year or two is worth it.
I mean, I guess I’m happy for them and everything, but, whatever.
What motivates me is extreme selfishness and some bigger picture selflessness. That’s the selfish interest in the quality of the places where I spend my time, and my journeys around and between them. And the big picture of the problems that our communities, society and planet face. Transport policy has a big impact on public health — through air pollution and active vs sedentary lifestyles it impacts pretty much any non-communicable disease you can think of — on climate change, energy use and economic productivity, and so ultimately on quality of life. And on all of those counts a policy of mass modal shift away from motor vehicles and to cycling would be a huge net positive. But nothing short of a revolution will do.
A real revolution — not a 5% mode share target shoehorned in beside business as usual.
Anything less is not going to make the slightest meaningful difference. Not going to make any noticeable difference to my journey being spoiled by heavy traffic and air pollution. Nor is it going to make any noticeable difference to population, planetary, or economic health. Not even going to add up to something that does in time, or reach a “tipping point”. A “cycling revolution” that is not registrable in things like morbidity statistics, by air quality measurements, in transport sector energy consumption and carbon emissions, or in the population’s quality of life, is not a revolution. And if it’s not a revolution (and if it doesn’t help me personally), sorry, I don’t really care. It’s not worth my time asking for it.
And “better than nothing” is worse than nothing when it stands in the way of changes that are actually worth giving a shit about. One tiny aspect of one tiny tiny part of the whole being “better than it was before” is worse than nothing when it takes the pressure off and makes a handy excuse to allow everything else to continue as it was before. As an organisation or campaign, settling for better for nothing is worse than nothing when the people who have invested their time and money in you begin to lose the motivation to ever do so again. Better than nothing is worse than nothing when it distracts our attention from our actual goals and what actually needs to be done to achieve them: when it gets us too tied up in projects instead of policy.
They tell us that perfection is the enemy of the good. Well better than nothing is the enemy of anything actually worth having. And that, Sustrans, is why you’re losing so many friends.
(And before you start telling me that trite cyclesport-inspired cliché about marginal gains again: that only works when you’ve already done the big stuff and made it to the top of your game. Marginal gains make the difference when you’re a top olympic athlete. They’re not going to help when you’re the kid who doesn’t get picked at games.)
Not having anything new to post, but having been reminded of this antique scrawl by last week’s Cycling Embassy response to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s consultation on whether they should interfere in local parking policies, I figured I could fob you off with something originally posted way back in august 2011.
This week, the Department for Communities and Local Government put out a press release about town centre parking. Unlike last time, they didn’t even have to announce that Pickles is ending The War On The Motorist™. On that point, their work was done for them, by 36 newspapers and the Daily Express. Aren’t they well trained?
This time around, Rubberknickers Pickles is ending The War by lifting restrictions on how much of our town centres can be given over to car parking. The idea is nothing new, of course, but it is assumed that most will have forgotten the previous occasions when it was announced. The “news” is that the paperwork has gone through: the new version of the government’s planning rules are complete.
As far as I can tell, the notorious limits on car parking provision that have been dropped were Policy EC8, “Car parking for non-residential development,” in the Planning Policy Statement 4 of 2001 [PDF]. This policy instructs local authorities:
Local planning authorities should, through their local development frameworks, set maximum parking standards for non-residential development in their area, ensuring alignment with the policies in the relevant local transport plan and, where relevant, the regional strategy.
In determining what their maximum should be, the policy suggested that authorities think about the needs of non-car users, the effects of congestion and need to tackle carbon emissions and air pollution, and:
h. the need to make provision for adequate levels of good quality secure parking in town centres to encourage investment and maintain their vitality and viability
j. the need to provide for appropriate disabled parking and access
k. the needs of different business sizes and types and major employers
That is, the notorious Labour control-freakery over town centre parking was, er, an instruction for local authorities to develop guidelines that they think are suitable for their own local situations. The Policy document goes on to state that these local standards that authorities have developed should then be applied to planning applications — unless the planning applicant gives a good reason for them not to apply.
So these maximum limits are locally decided and not really binding. That doesn’t quite look like “centrally controlled parking quotas” to me. In his press release, Pickles says:
The Government believes councils and communities are best placed to set parking policies that are right for their area and based on local need – not Whitehall. Local people know the level of parking that is sustainable for their town centre.
Which seems to be exactly what the old Policy document supported.
Perhaps there was some other Labour policy, rule, or law that I haven’t been able to find? Anybody?
I’m not sure what real difference the removal of this policy makes. Previously councils were made to think about the effect of congestion and pollution and the like on their town centres, and the needs of people on foot and bike and bus. When a planning application came in they would know how to recognise whether it would be bad for their town, and they would have a good pre-prepared excuse to reject a development that would make their town centre a more congested and polluted place, or which would hinder walking, cycling, and public transport. But I assume that they’re still allowed to reject those developments if they still don’t like congestion and pollution and dead places?
But perhaps the new policy document will send a message to local authorities: your town centres are in a bad way, and you need to do something about it. In his press release, Pickles says that the removal of this rule will “provide a big boost to struggling high streets”:
The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, recently published, will do away with these anti-car restrictions introduced in 2001 and give high streets a boost to compete for shoppers. It will encourage new investment in town centres, provide more jobs and encourage more charging spaces for electric cars.
Unfortunately, Pickles doesn’t explain how the new Policy will translate into more competitive town centres with more jobs. More importantly, he presents no evidence to support the statement. So I went looking for it. Luckily, Greg Marsden has already reviewed the evidence on parking policies.
One of the studies that Marsden reviews is the 2002 Lockwood Survey, which divides “town centres” by size of the town/catchment area, and whose summary states:
4. Findings of the parking survey:
Major District Centres: Poor store performance is linked with low levels of parking, reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).
Sub Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).
Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with high charges for 3 and 4 hour stays (the report gives indicative levels).
But when Marsden looked at the data he found it a lot more difficult to support these conclusions. In “major district centres”, those with very low levels of parking were indeed more likely to be performing badly. But those with mildly low levels of parking did better than those with high levels. And in regional centres, those with higher levels of parking were struggling more than those with lower levels. But those with very high levels of parking did a little better than those with very low levels.
There simply doesn’t seem to be any pattern in this data at all. The authors of the original report had cherry picked those parts of the data that made it look like low parking provision was harming shops, while ignoring those parts that said the reverse. Marsden found the same for parking charges and the proportion of parking spaces within a five minute walk of the main shopping area: the data was all over the place, showing no obvious and consistent relationship with economic performance. Why not? Because if variation in parking provision has any effect on town centre attractiveness and competitiveness at all, it is masked by far more important factors — perhaps factors like whether the town centre is easy to get to, has shops people want to use, and is a nice place to be.
So why is Pickles press releasing his new policy as the saviour for struggling town centres? Why did most of the newspapers toe that line? We’ve developed a national myth that giving over more of our town centres to parking is good for the businesses in them.
Sustrans documented the nature of this myth by talking to traders and shoppers on Gloucester Road in Bristol. Bristol is relatively dense and affluent with above average cycling and car ownership rates and, even by British standards, appalling public transport. Gloucester Road doubles as a major artery with many bus routes and a neighbourhood centre lined with mostly independent shops. As Bristol Traffic documents, its bus and bike lanes are usually filled with parked cars.
Shopkeepers on Gloucester road estimated that more than two fifths of their customers came by car. In fact it was only just over a fifth. They greatly underestimated how many people walked, cycled, or took the bus. The shopkeepers were perhaps being big-headed, believing that their businesses were capable of attracting people from a wider catchment area, when in fact most customers lived within an easily walkable distance.
And the shopkeepers greatly overestimated the importance of drivers to their business in another way: while the people who walked were likely to stick around and visit several shops and businesses, the drivers typically pulled up, ran in to one shop, and got out of there as fast as they could. Perhaps that’s because often they couldn’t even be bothered to park up properly and instead stopped in the bike lanes outside their destination.
High street shopkeepers and business owners greatly overestimate the importance of drivers to their success. Why? Perhaps proprietors are more likely to be drivers themselves, and, as is so often the case with motorists, can’t get their heads around the fact that so many others aren’t? Perhaps their view of the street through the big shop window is dominated by the big metal boxes passing through? Perhaps they see the apparent success of the big soulless out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls, attribute that success to the acres of car parking, and leap to the conclusion that car parking is all that a business needs for success — that the model which succeeds on the periphery can be applied to the model that is failing in the centre.
I suspect that the opposite might be true. Those who are attached to their cars will go to the barns on the ring-roads. You won’t attract them back to the town centres. But by trying — by providing for the car parking at the expense of bike paths and bus lanes and wider pavements — you might drive away the surprisingly high proportion of town centre customers who don’t come by car, who come precisely because, unlike the malls, the town centre is walkable and cycleable and because the bus can get through. Town centres aren’t just competing with out-of-town malls and supermarkets any more. Those who don’t want to drive to out-of-town barns can sit at home, click on some buttons, and have things driven to them. Compared to most of the traffic-choked high streets in this country, that’s quite an attractive option.