The transport and streetscape proposals coming from Bristol’s councils and councillors reveal their priorities and choices. So why are they so reluctant to take ownership of them?
Bristol is once again making the news for the poor quality of the cycling and walking infrastructure that it’s building and proposing.
First it was how they proposed trying to deal with the drainage problems on Whiteladies Road. This was slightly unfairly reported as “Key Bristol cycle lane to be scrapped – because council claims it causes flooding“. The council don’t actually claim the cycle lane is the cause of flooding on Whiteladies Road, they’ve simply decided that their preferred solution is to reallocate some space to build rain gardens for the stormwater to flow into, and they’ve chosen cycling to take the space from.
This has led to much discussion among campaigners about details like whether the painted lanes are any good or worth saving anyway. But what really stands out to me is how the council, and the councillors, have communicated the decisions that underpin their proposal. In the introduction to the consultation they’re keen to tell us (my emphasis):
“We do try wherever possible to avoid the removal of the cycle lanes”
And in their news story, they quote Councillor Don Alexander — Cabinet Member for Transport — making this plea of powerlessness over the situation (my emphasis):
“It is always a last resort to propose taking out cycle lanes, but the lack of space in this area means we need to consider it.”
The good news for Don and the council is that it is possible to avoid the removal of cycling from Whiteladies Road. They could choose a different solution to the drainage problem. They could choose to fix and upgrade the traditional drainage system. They could choose to work with the private property owners who have all paved over the entirety of the land around the buildings here with impermeable car parks that slope straight down onto the public footway, to help them fix those mistakes. They could choose to take space away from motor vehicles — there are loads of different ways to do it. They could put in a bus gate filter and make this a bus and bike street. They could make it one-way for motors, and route the rest of the traffic another way. They could make it a single lane for traffic with traffic lights choreographing alternate direction working. You could even choose to take space away from pedestrians — I wouldn’t advocate doing so, but it’s not impossible.
I’m not saying that any of those things would be easy or cheap, or even that they would be preferable to the option that has been put to consultation. But easy, cheap and preferable is not what we’re being sold. We’re being told that nothing else is possible, but luckily removing cycling is.
All of the options come with winners and losers. There are trade-offs. Some will cost more money. Each will please and upset different segments of the electorate and be more or less of a difficult political sell. They will have bigger or smaller knock-on effects on the quality of other transport modes, like buses. But they’re all possible and the council has chosen one of them. Own your choice. Explain to us why you think, all things considered, this one is the least worst option. When you’ve done that, we might agree with you and accept it. Just stop insulting us by pretending that it is a last resort when there are clearly a whole bunch of other resorts after it that you have yet to resort to.
Constraints and priorities
Whiteladies Road is not a one-off. This is just the way that our councils think about, and communicate, transport and street design projects. In the North Fringe — land of a thousand dual carriageway link roads, big roundabouts and car-dependent sprawl — Bristol City Council and South Gloucestershire Council are collaborating on a cross-boundary consultation for some changes around the new Brabazon neighbourhood.
Most of the proposals are for pitifully small tweaks — makework schemes to spend developer contributions without doing anything to actually provide for active travel or challenge the car sick status quo. The plans are full of classic crap facilities — narrow shared pavements through bus stops to toucan crossings — which fall far short of modern design standards and may well leave the councils in trouble if they ever expect to receive government funding for transport projects in future. The level of ambition for active travel is perfectly encapsulated by one label on the plans offering “potential relocation of existing bin to avoid conflict between cyclists and pedestrians.”
But the label that really made me choke on my tea was “segregated facility to be converted to a shared use footway due to space constraints”.
Beside six — count them — lanes of dual carriageway. This is not a constrained space.
What the council is doing here is choosing how to prioritise the use of space, and it has chosen overwhelmingly to prioritise motoring.
Maybe they have reasons for choosing this prioritisation over alternatives, but that doesn’t make it any less of a choice. Six lanes of dual carriageway do not spring naturally out of the ground. The road is not hot lava that the council physically can not touch. God will not strike them down if they question the six lane dual carriageway. They have chosen to prioritise having a six lane dual carriageway over having fit for purpose active travel infrastructure. They need to own their decisions and defend their priorities, not pretend they are simply following some kind of objective science that says six lane dual carriageways are an immutable fact of life that they have no control over.
Shutting down discussion
This tendency to try to hide choices and political priorities behind the language of powerlessness, objectivity or neutrality is now popping up in all kinds of surprising and revealing places.
When the new contraflow cycle track on Nelson Street and Quay Street — built by the developer of the neighbouring plot after years of occupying the pavement here — was finally unveiled last week and discovered to be poorly designed and shoddily built, Don Alexander was quick to jump in and tell us again that it just couldn’t be any other way.
Never mind that in this case dedicated space has been given to cycling, and the width of it was far from the main problem that critics were highlighting with it. This was the best possible scheme with the space available apparently. Due to the space available, apparently, it’s impossible to provide a clear visual delineation between space for walking and space for cycling. Due to the space available, it’s impossible to build the path in a robust, fit for purpose surfacing material that won’t break apart and become unusable in a few years. Due to the space available, it’s impossible not to throw cyclists off a bunch of kerbs at double 90 degree turns. You can’t argue with the science.
Talking this way about the decisions that are being made over how we use our urban space is an attempt to shut down discussion. We know there are trade-offs to be balanced and competing interests to be considered. We know different options have different costs and different effects, with different winners and losers, and we can’t even always forecast what those will be with great accuracy. But there are always choices. There is space on our streets, and together we need to choose how to prioritise the ways we can use it. Sometimes it will be a complex and messy discussion, but we can’t avoid it by always pretending the fate of our streetspace is sealed.