Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Seeing The Light

From the BBC

Every UK road casualty between 1999-2010 recorded as a point of light.

Two million, three hundred and ninety six thousand, seven hundred and fifty of them picking out the road network.

Beautiful. In a macabre way.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Let It Snow!

07.00hrs 18 December 2011

First snowfall of the year for me. A lovely commute to work. Cars few and far between. Those about were taking it very easy. Ski goggles worked well as falling snow hurting eyes. Didn't have or need the studded tyres this morning. Could have used them on return trip. It had snowed, thawed and then frozen. Slippy on side roads. No falls or near falls though. A job for tomorrow? Clothing working well. Very toasty. Good to cycle commute. No weather too tough!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Saving The High Street

Picture nicked from the Guardian
The slow death of the High Street in the UK is plain for most to see. If it is not the closure of small businesses it is the homogenisation of the outlets that are trading successfully. Shopping habits have changed. People like to drive to out of town malls; shopping has become a leisure activity, some would argue a religion, and of course shopping online is often cheaper with a larger choice than visiting a physical store. 

So, can the High Street be saved? Indeed should it be saved? Well David Cameron clearly thought this was a worthwhile thing to do so he did what politicians sometimes do when they have a problem; he got a celebrity to undertake an independent review for him and come up with a plan (link to full 55 page PDF).

Enter Mary Portas - 'Queen of Shops and Frocks', TV personality and no doubt a very able person. She has made 28 recommendations which she feels will help. Similar initiatives have been done before though. As recently as 2009 the previous Goverment was investing £3m to help turn boarded up shops into art galleries and the like, so I can't help but think this latest attempt encouraging local councils to make plans, changing planning rules and relaxing red tape will not make a huge difference either.

Mary Portas
Who am I to criticise though? I shop online, my families main grocery shop is at Tesco and my wife loves a bit of 'retail therapy' every now and then. However, I also despair at the blight of empty and neglected shop units, the loss of community when they close and the environmental, societal and health costs in using cars to routinely go shopping.

I certainly don't see the High Street returning to the dominance it once had but would love to see a revitalised area for local shopping and community interaction, so I broadly welcome most of her plan. Some of the recommendations do rub me the wrong way though, particularly point 9 which states:  
Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres and we should have a new parking league table.
Now, writing a cycling based blog you might see where I am going with this. Encourage people to use cars to go shopping? Well even though I am an avid cyclist I do sometimes drive a car too. I also do not believe for one minute that cycling is a panacea for all ills. People need to drive on occasion for a variety of reasons. High streets provide everyday types of shop but also more specialised ones too. These can attract people from far and wide and sometimes the car is just the most convenient method to access these outlets. 

Where I live there is an independent cheese shop, a specialist audio visual shop, a pet shop specialising in reptiles and a shop selling wigs. There are also three nice restaurants and one very nice, award winning one too (lucky me!). However, most of the shopping is of the mundane, everyday variety and I really do not want to encourage more people to travel by car to the area. Instead I want to encourage more local people not to use their cars to go elsewhere.

So, making car use easier and cheaper is never going to part of the solution in my book. High streets will never be able to compete with supermarkets and out of town malls which have vast amounts of free parking available. They need something else. Oh wait. Point 10 may be of help. This states:
Town Teams should focus on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe.
If this is not an argument for discouraging car usage and creating a more pleasant environment I don't know what is. Somewhere people feel safe to wander on foot, easily crossing traffic calmed streets while having a chat? Where crash barriers can be removed, pavements widened and raised road crossings installed? Adequate cycle parking provided and access optimised? And maybe, just maybe where cycling to the shops, cafe, library, etc is an attractive, viable option for local people? 

Is this an unobtainable utopian dream I wonder? Well it's not even a dream for Mary. How many times did the report mention 'cyclist' 'cycling' or 'bicycle' in all of its 55 pages on saving the High Street? I don't pretend to have read it all but word searching the PDF document shows the answer is...not at all!

Increased car dominance and more unattractive, polluted, crowded and dangerous high streets. Just what really is not needed. I despair sometimes. I really do.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

BMX Bandit

The BBC has a report of a 15 year old boy riding a BMX bike into a pedestrian on a bridleway and causing her some significant injury from the sound of it. This dangerous and loutish behaviour is indefensible and I feel for the woman hurt by this idiot. However, I despair of reporting which focuses on this because it involves cycling (even though it was a BMX) while not putting the type of incident into any greater context. 

In the immediate area where this incident took place there have been eleven fatalities and numerous serious injuries from 2000 - 2010 according to Road Casualties UK. I venture none have been caused by cyclists! A little balance would therefore be nice but this kind of death toll is now an accepted price we, as a society, seem willing to pay for the freedom to drive cars about the place. 

This will now be something else I am guilty of by association. And I have NEVER even ridden a BMX!

Road casualties around Caerwys. Large rectangles = fatalities.

Bicycles On The Metrolink

Manchester has a light rail network known as the Metrolink. It is a busy and well used system currently undergoing a period of expansion to outlying areas of Greater Manchester. Bicycles have been banned on carriages since its creation (conditions of carriage 17a). This extends to folding bicycles as well unless they are in a bag. While this may at first seem sensible to ensure maximum space is kept for passengers, the restriction limits the ability of commuters to cycle to and from stops and so have a joined up transport solution for commuting purposes. This will be felt particularly keenly on the expanded system as it will replace existing rail lines which do allow cycles to be carried. 

Metrolink. Current and planned lines. Click for bigger image
Many light rail systems allow the carriage of folded and unfolded bicycles, with certain conditions, including the London Underground system. In 2010 Manchester Friends of the Earth campaigned to reverse the Metrolink ban on folding bicycles by demonstrating folding items which are permitted. These items included ironing boards and deckchairs! While these are not likely to be everyday objects carried on the Metrolink, the campaign was successful in gaining a review of the ban even though the restriction was not subsequently changed.

Friends of the Earth campaign
Luckily I can commute by bicycle without the need for a rail/tram link. Although I live next to a Metrolink station and work is 10 mins away from one just a few stops down the line, I can get there by bike in four miles. Sometimes I even take a longer route just for the fun of it. Using a bicycle to get to and from a Metrolink stop makes no sense for me.

I understand why people do want to mix cycling and public transport and despair of the those who are willing to drive a short distance to a station instead. I have every sympathy though with those who object to non folded bicycles being taken on carriages at busy times. My ideal would be for all bicycles to be allowed on the system at off peak times and feel the need for folding bicycles to be carried in a bag is an unnecessary hurdle.

So knowing the restrictions, I was a little nervous when I took my borrowed Brompton (without bag) on the Metrolink the other evening. I had cycled from work to the joint Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign and Wheelers Brunch Christmas meal. The Brompton was used as I didn't want to leave my nice big bike locked up in Manchester city centre for any length of time. Plus, I thought no one would object to a folding bike at a cycle campaign meeting. 

Anyway, no one did. The bike folded up out of the way and a very nice evening was had. When the time came for me to make my way home, I was less inclined to cycle than normal, no doubt due to the meal + several beers + the very cold, blustery weather. No problem I thought, I am right next to a city centre Metrolink stop and have a folding bike. 

I cycled to the platform and folded the Brommie. One comment was forthcoming from a fellow traveller along the lines of how impressive the fold was and then I was on the tram. No one objected to the bike, which was a lot smaller than several suitcases and a wheeled shopping bag in the carriage. A few stops along a team of inspectors boarded. I thought I would have some hassle but they totally ignored it and concentrated on checking tickets instead. 

Despite breaking the conditions of carriage and no doubt giving material to those who think cyclists are agents of the Devil, do I have any regrets? Well the short answer is no. Restrictions should be in place for good reason and I do not see any why folding bikes should be bagged. Chances are I won't be using the Metrolink in combination with Brommie any time soon but call me a rebel - I am willing to make a stand on this point and be ejected if it comes to it!

Bag it up?

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Real Thing

Seen recently in the store where 'every little helps'. 

I thought at first someone had taken advantage of the display to leave their Bike Shaped Object (BSO) for a quick shop but no. Apparently the famous purveyor of sugar laden pop has now branched out into bicycles! 

The Cola Bike = The Real Thing?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Trip To The Movies Cinema

Following on from my recent post about the Outwood Trail, its possible resurfacing and the fact while this new surface will be welcome, it will not magically change it into cycling infrastructure fit for everyday use, I decided to film a cycle trip using said route. I wanted to show a typical journey using it for a normal chose to do a trip to the Movies cinema.

I live in Prestwich and the nearest cinema is four miles away by road in Bury. The National Cycle Network (NCN) can be joined within a mile or so of my house and there are dedicated cycle lanes and bridleways to use as well, so I thought why not try to make the journey as car free and safe as possible and use these and some quiet roads to make my way to the silver screen. It didn't matter it was more than double the road distance, I got very wet and muddy (despite mudguards) and could have broken my neck and not been found for hours - this is cycling provision in the UK and I wanted to show it in all its glory.

The Garmin detail and map are here. The fall was genuine. I could have avoided it by walking or riding down the steps using my MTB but hey, where's the fun in that? Not everyone has a choice of bikes and I decided to use my everyday workhorse for the trip - the Santos Travelmaster equipped with Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tyres and touring ratio Rohloff gearing. Probably more capable than the average bike and able to carry a pannier with a change of clothing and tools in case I needed them...which I did!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Cycling The Wrong Way

One way streets. Some locales have lots and others few. Many force longer journeys on the road user to get from A to B but may be required due to street design, the need to limit traffic flow or access. The extra distance is often of little concern to a motorist but could be a significant extra distance, as a proportion of short urban journeys for the cyclist. This could conceivably be seen as a barrier to such journeys.

It has been argued one of the attractions of cycling in an urban environment is the permeability it allows to move through a built up area in comparison to motorised vehicles. This can be met in a number of ways; dedicated cycle lanes and paths, shared use paths and spaces and traffic calmed street with barriers to other traffic for example. A further method, widely used in other countries with good results, is to allow cyclists to travel the 'wrong way' along one way streets using a contraflow system. This has been used in the UK in a limited number of areas with some success but is not widespread. 

Some cyclists may well choose to ignore the current law and take 'illegal' short cuts via one way streets anyway, recognising the benefit of a shorter more direct route. While being understandable this cannot be condoned in my view as it will do the image of cyclists no favours and would be very hard to defend in the event of an accident. Luckily, there may be an extension of the cycling contraflow streets coming soon.

The Department for Transport (DfT) document - Signing the Way (Oct 2011) - will give councils the powers, or rather will relax the hoops to jump through, to make such changes possible. There are also some other changes which are designed to aid cycling such as: allowing easier official entry to ASL's, being able to cycle over Zebra crossings along certain routes and the use of pre signals at traffic lights permitting cyclists to start before other traffic. The full details are on pages 33-37 of the PDF document.

While councils will have this new power, it does not put any duty on them to make such changes. So what can be done if such measures would bring cycling benefit to a locale? Easy. Get in touch with your local councillor, cycling forum or council cycling officer and make the case for change known. It may not happen overnight but the more pressure there is the harder it will be to ignore.

Good luck and good campaigning!

Friday, 2 December 2011

The Making Of A Champion

Boris by Mark Baker (click picture to visit site)
Whatever your political persuasion and whatever your views on Cycle Supehighways, Blackfriars Bridge, Bow Roundabout and the like - and this Guardian reading, cycle loving, Amnesty subscribing, recycling friendly, republican leaning, global warming believing, atheist espousing, public sector health care worker will remain totally impartial on the matter - there is one certain thing you can say about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and the 'Boris Bikes'; he has never insisted helmets were a part of the cycle hire experience, unlike Ken Livingstone who was set to make them a requirement, according to this report, before he was ousted by his frazzle haired, public school educated, nemesis who has been quoted saying: "...there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters".

So, Boris Johnson; the cyclists champion? Discuss.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

It Ain't Dutch!

I've written before about the UK National Cycle Network. 'National' really is a misnomer though as these routes lack any central planning and monies instead relying on piecemeal funding and voluntary rangers while making use of existing roads and trails of various types. They can be circuitous, dirty, muddy, poorly signed and strewn with barriers of various types. They can also be fun and enjoyable, traffic lite routes but as a network they fall far short of perfect in my opinion. They are good for leisure cycling but have limited appeal to the utility cyclist.

Route 6 is the one nearest me and it will run from London to Keswick when complete. I sometimes use the off road section to travel from Prestwich to Bury. It is a longer journey than by road at almost 8 miles compared to just over 4. I do it rarely, usually when the weather is pleasant, I fancy a change of scenery and have some spare time. I've also taken the Golden Child along it on her tagalong to Radcliffe, something I would definitely not do along the busy A roads. 

I use my tourer or MTB which are more than adequate but any skinny tyred road machine would not fare very well. Even on the right bike, in the wet the rider will be mud spattered despite full length, close fitting mudguards (I've done it. It's true!). Not really what you want on the way to/from work/shopping.

View Cycle Route 6: Prestwich to Bury in a larger map

The section south of the M60 has recently been cleaned up and the paths upgraded as part of the 'Prestwich Forest Park' regeneration scheme. It is more than usable in most weathers for the majority of cycles/cyclists, although it has no lighting at all which limits its use for dark time commuting, unless you enjoy cycle lighting like me and Mr C.

North of the M60 the route becomes The Outwood Trail and follows an old railway line. Immediately on leaving the bridge crossing the motorway the quality of the path is very much subject to the prevailing weather - being either dry and rutted or muddy and bepuddled. It is also very overgrown along sections. 

As the route approaches Radcliffe it does improve somewhat before sending the rider on a short but poorly signed road section, up an essentially pedestrian ramp into a car park where you are left to guess how to proceed. When the point to cross the road is finally located the route follows a canal towpath for a while. This is asphalted but is narrow with several 'cyclist dismount' suggestions at low bridges. The route then goes via a car park, along a brick filled farm track before joining another old railway line (asphalted) for the short leg into Bury.

So why I am bringing this up? Well news reaches me the Outwood Trail section may be due for some work to improve the surface. This is one of four projects currently awaiting funding in the Bury area from a bid to the Greater Manchester Local Sustainable Transport Fund. Now, nothing is definite, particularly in these choppy financial times, but it might come to pass, at some point in the future, there will be *gasp* some hard packed gravel or maybe even asphalt along this section. 

This would be nice but it still doesn't make it part of a well planned National Cycle Network, meeting any serious comparison to cycle paths in more enlightened countries and a challenge to the lure of the internal combustion engine. Still, its a nice day out!