Friday, August 30, 2013

Cycling to school with the CTC - Oxford edition

I read the Alternative DfT's post this week with interest:

Highly recommended - for both the article and discussion - go there!  Incidentally, Alternative DfT is doing sterling work; I hope they're put in charge of a few transport billions of £££ sometime soon.

Briefly - the CTC website is promoting children's "Right to Ride to School", and lamenting the very low modal share (only 2% of kids ride to school), while pointing to everything but the road conditions as the cause.

To illustrate, they used a heavily cropped picture of some happy kids riding to school.  They initially wouldn't admit to Alt DfT where this picture was taken.  Turns out these kids are happily riding on a segregated cycle track alongside a main road.

In other words, exactly the kind of infrastructure CTC knows gets people cycling, in every country where ordinary people actually do cycle, but which they're not quite ready to commit to.  Or are understandably afraid to support, knowing that in the past when cycling campaigners have asked for high quality infrastructure, much of what they have received has been on the cheap, afterthoughts, not fit for purpose or "worse than useless".

The CTC have a long history of being a club for cycling enthusiasts.  They have a more recent history of being "the national cycling charity".  I believe they are struggling to reconcile the two.

But all of us "cyclists" - we are the low-hanging fruit, the people who are already cycling in the UK, despite local and national transport policies that are deeply flawed or just downright hostile for people on bikes.  We're not the ones to concentrate on right now.

I want to see my children cycle!  I want them to leave the house in the morning, to ride to school, without me being terrified they will die.  And no amount of Bikeability training will do that, if the roads aren't safe.

Being charitable, and taken in isolation, this heavily cropped picture might just be a mistake.

But in context, it's symptomatic of a head-in-the-sand, stubborn refusal to see the truth staring us all in the face - that until conditions are right - until the infrastructure is there - most people wouldn't dream of letting their kids ride to school (and they might well be doing the right thing).

Here's another example, from Oxford, for context:

A while back, CTC came out with "Cycletopia" (hint - a fantastical land of nowhere, with high quality cycling provision, composed of the "best examples" they could find by only looking in the UK.  Because, you know, there's no point looking beyond this little island.  The laws of physics are probably different elsewhere.  Or maybe foreigners have funny little bicycles and funny little cars, so it's easier to fit them all in).

Anyway, in Cycletopia, cycling to school is point 8 of their plan.  Their best practice example?  The Cherwell School, Oxford.

Here's what they say:

Nationally, just one in 50 pupils travels to school by bike, but almost 60% of pupils cycle to the Cherwell School in Oxford – and only 1 in 10 by car.
The school runs cycle maintenance workshops, there’s an active cycling club and they even campaign to improve road conditions for cyclists.

I happen to live pretty near this secondary school.  It's on one of the main arterial routes in North Oxford.

Here's a picture of it; Bill Boaden's photo (CC licensed), found at the Wikipedia page for Marston Ferry Road:

Cycle route under Marston Ferry Road - - 1740300

That's the school on the right, on the far side of the road.

Ok, I lied.  It's not just a photo of the school.  It's also a photo of a cycle underpass.

But in it you can see exactly why "almost 60% of pupils" cycle to this school.

I'll give you a hint.  It's not the "cycle maintenance workshops".  It's not the "active cycling club".

And to be honest, most of the kids probably don't give two hoots for the "campaign to improve road conditions for cyclists."  They most likely don't think of themselves as "cyclists".  They're just kids getting to school.

This school lies on a main road with cars doing well over the 40mph limit.  But there is also a wide (over 3m?  I've not measured), smooth, bidirectional dedicated cycling route here, so the kids are not on the road.  It's the smooth black tarmac taking up the majority of the bottom edge of the photo.  It  means they can ride without worrying about cars and lorries, and without their parents worrying, either.  There's also a pedestrian route alongside, so they're not even vying for space with walkers, runners, dogs etc.

This is why nearly 60% of these kids ride to school.

Does the CTC seriously believe their own spin?  Are maintenance workshops and cycling clubs more important - for everyday commuting cycling, and trips to school - than proper infrastructure?

I'm sure there are good people at the CTC.  (For example, Roger Geffen at CTC seems to be both pragmatic and committed to proper infrastructure).  And even at the Highways Agency, at your local council, and the DfT.

But I'm also sure there are people, even at the CTC, who look at infrastructure like that at Cherwell School, (infrastructure which seems to be working), and turn their nose up at it.  "You don't need that!  It's sub-standard!  Look at the sharp turns you'll have to negotiate!  Just Share the Road!  Come on, it's fun!"

I know this because, when, on my road bike, in Lycra, shoes clipped in to my pedals, tucked forward to present a smaller aerodynamic profile to the wind, I often don't use this infrastructure.  I use the road.  I'm going the same speed (at least) as the rest of the road traffic, I'm in the zone, and the road is quicker.  I turn my nose up at the infrastructure, because it doesn't work for me.

But for the great majority of people on bikes, for those who don't yet cycle (but could!), or even just when I'm towing my daughter slowly to town in her trailer, it works brilliantly.

So yes, CTC, you're right that Cherwell is a great example of how kids can ride to school.  You're just a little confused as to why.


Dave H said...

My children go to a secondary school near Leicester. They cycled to their primary school, but have to get the bus, a school bus service because there is no local bus route that can be used, and a service that drains the budget for that school in providing buses to get the children there.

After school activity is equally limited by the fact that they have a 3-4 mile hike, and a choice of field paths (impassable in wet weather) or negotiating a way past a large high speed roundabout, connecting a trunk dual carriageway with a feeder dual carriageway, and local roads.

Had the County Council had some forethought they could have build an underpass to connect the 2 parts of the old road buried under this mess and delivered something better than the 'crossing' provided for the historic route - by leaving a gap in the central crash barrier of the dual carriageway.

Amortising the cost of the buses over 10-20 years would have gone a long way to paying to build that underpass when the roads were built but of course its not the education budget or the health budget in our silo mentality of government and planning.

Unknown said...

Thanks - you're right of course, compartmentalizing government budgets often leads to bizarre decisions. It's the opposite of good economic planning (where you attempt to minimize "externalities" in order to get closer to the true picture.

And we sometimes forget, cycling seems to come not under Transport, but "communities and local government", whatever that is.

Until the DfT commits to cycling in a big way (ie more than just Norman Baker), we are a bit stuck in the 1970s.