Thursday, July 21, 2011

Musings–cars a solution that became a problem

I have been out for a ride since my last post – honest and a “proper” ride, alongside the Cam and up and down the Cambridge Guided Busway (CGB) high-quality cycle path, but that will have to wait. Loads of Web pages seem to be hanging around on my browser so I’d better get around to either writing about them or getting rid of them.

This is a bit of a ramble – the summary is:

  • A bit on the CGB – no more news about the accident
  • A load of stuff about how society is hooked on cars and it makes us unhappy
  • A phone box being used as a library

So let’s start with the CGB when I cycled up and down it on Tuesday there is a lot of activity taking place with gangs working at various places along the track and loads of activity at the St Ives Park and Ride Car park end.  There were places where vehicles were using the Cycleway, but quite a few walkers and cyclists were on the track. It is still officially closed though.

I have not yet seen any reports that indicate exactly how and what happened to the cyclist hit on the Guided Busway by a Guided Bus.  Apparently it is being investigated by the Health and Safety Executive and the cyclist got caught up in the guided wheel.  More can be found on Cam.transport. I do think that the most likely explanation is that the cyclist fell or stumbled unexpectedly just as the bus went by since I cannot imagine the bus driver deliberately driving into the cyclist under the circumstances. After all when you are driving a vehicle down the street you tend to make assumptions that pedestrians are unlikely to be hiding behind Post boxes ready to jump out in front of your car.

Apparently the CGB has also affected the A14 – “A14 proposals on hold until busway is open”.  The Cambridgeshire County Council has decided to put some improvement proposals for the A14 on hold until the CGB is up and running. The item also mentions that there have been 924 recorded accidents on the A14 between Hinchingbrooke and Girton between 1999 and 2010. In case you are wondering here is a tongue in cheek website (The Cambridge Nuisance) looking at the journey times for the guided busway versus some historical comparisons.

There is going to be a series of Open Events where you can ask questions about the CGB and get to see a Guided Bus up close next week.

The A14 article does reasonably put forward the safety argument as the reason for making changes, but there is insufficient information to work out the cost-benefit of any such changes.  The issue seems to be that cars have increased personal freedom. That freedom has allowed us to live further and further away from where we work and has encouraged the growth of out-of-town shopping centres, centralised working space – aka Science Parks. For instance the Cambridge Science Park has over 100 companies in over 1.5 million square feet of space. The Granta Science Park has over 600,000 sq. ft. built and let, 30,000 sq. ft. available to let and over 400,000 sq. ft. of planning consent. (Just over a million square feet in total.)

As a complete guess assuming that the average space per worker is 200 sq. ft. (which is probably an underestimate since it implies more office workers and less manufacturing) then the Cambridge Science Park could take around 7,500 people and the Granta Science Park could take 5,000 people. Now those are back of the envelope guesses. However a web search showed that in a 2009 Travel for Work Survey for the Cambridge Science Park 5,000 were employed with 54% as sole occupants of cars, 10% sharing cars, 20% by bicycle, 5% walking and 3% used public transport. (A question in Hansard noted the average daily traffic as 60,900 on the A14 at Milton in 2008)

That implies that around 3,000 cars drive in and out every day, but the elephant in the room must be the tiny number of people who use public transport. What it does imply is that either the provision of public transport is basically crap or too expensive. Which really points to the bus service, since the Cambridge Railway Station is on the other side of the city. I guess this is why there was such a push to get the CGB up an running since at one sweep it gets all those people working in the corridor between the Science Park and St Ives. Assuming that the buses run fairly full (55 people) then according to Wikipedia a bus runs at around 330 passenger miles per gallon.  This isn’t as impressive as I thought it might be. If you get 4 people in a car doing 40 miles per gallon then that implies 160 passenger miles per gallon.

The table further down the Wikipedia article on US Passenger Transportation implies that Buses are the most inefficient form of transportation assuming an average passenger load of 8.8 people per vehicle. However the bus if run full then becomes one of the most efficient. I still feel that the real problem is that, as currently configured buses are the least pleasant form of transport.  Buses are noisy, cramped and either too hot or too cold. Also they don’t tend to stop and start very smoothly which makes working on them difficult.

So coming back to the general transportation issue we can either build more and bigger roads. Which will tend to increase the car dependency, not solve  pollution issues, or deal with global warming or we need to change. The trouble is that the motoring issue is a political hot potato. Emotive terms like the “war on the motorist” are bandied about despite the fact that the real cost of motoring seems to have reduced whilst the real cost of bus, coach and train fares has increased. This answer to a Parliamentary Question (Travel Costs) suggests that according to the ONS between ‘97 and 2010 the real cost of motoring declined by 7%, whilst bus and coach fares increased by 24% and rail fares increased by 17%.

So far from encouraging more sustainable forms of transport the reverse has happened, essentially it is only the fact that oil is not renewable and is a diminishing resource that is actually having an effect. Actually there has been a push to promote electric cars with a £5,000 subsidy. (To the tune of £43m in the first year and perhaps up to £230m in further years get the go ahead.) Now it would be easy to get annoyed about this since I would prefer to see the subsidy being  made available to encourage those using public transport. However the take up has been low – with 534 people taking it. Mind you the train system can be confusing the consumer group Passenger Focus has been reported in the Daily Mail as saying that “train passengers are bamboozled by jargon and paying over the odds when booking tickets online”. I would have to agree and this becomes yet another barrier to people using the rail system for travel.

The trouble is that we have become fixated on cars, I have I won’t deny it it. Even though I cycle more miles than I drive I don’t even bother discussing the idea of cutting down on cars we own with my family – they would think I was mad. (Actually they know I am mad). Even worse I am a 4x4 gas-guzzler driver. I’ve mentioned that I think that as a society we have stumbled into a rather unhappy transport-centric way of life. Maybe it is inevitable, certainly I find it preferable to go to a large supermarket for the range, freshness as well as price.

I am not a fan of commuting and do think that it has a detrimental effect on one’s happiness. I used to do business in Japan quite a lot and whilst their train system is the envy of many countries at the end of the day it meant that long commutes were routine. As far as I am concerned commuting time is lost time (unless you cycle).It is one of the factors that has caused us to become a time-poor nation. Which is why there is less tolerance and courtesy on the roads. The Daily Mail reports that “Britain loses its patience with queuing…” which does support my time-poor theory.

The Daily Mail also reports (on a report) that “Slow drivers ‘are among the most dangerous on roads’ and cause crashes”. How can that be I ask, well because they stress out other drivers so much that they do risky overtaking manoeuvres. They must be the same stressed drivers who when coming down the road towards me on my bicycle decide to overtake a slower-moving vehicle and so occupy the lane I am in, safe in the knowledge that I’ll get out of the way. When I am driving with my daughter, a newly qualified driver, who is no slouch but does stick to the speed limit I am appalled how often she gets overtaken. 

Newly qualified drivers in the UK are treated as if “on probation” and if you reach six or more penalty points you will lose you licence. It makes sense, it also means that my daughter is very sensitive to the speed limits. Her driving instructor did a good job (not me), we have 20MPH speed limits in various places in Cambridge and she is good at alerting the driver if she happens to be a passenger.

The trouble is that we seem to have institutionalised speeding as a victimless bit of mild naughtiness, so much so that even the speed limits seem to be flexible. I am in favour of Speed Awareness courses, they make sense, but it seems to me that we find it difficult not to speed, so much so that we then consider Speed traps as part of a war on motorists.  Here in Cambridge 4,000 people were caught speeding on three roads in one year.

So we find ourselves on roads where there are some motorists who feel that “slow speed” is to blame, where despite the real cost of motoring coming down there is a perceived “war on motorists” and the total number of vehicles on the road has increased by around 35% in the period from 1994 to 2010. Although  it will come as now surprise to know that in the same period light goods vans (white van man) increased by 50%. What is more surprising is that over the last four or five years there have been fewer Heavy good vehicles and buses and coaches.

So the issue seems to be that our roads are getting busier, society is time poor and the roads are more unpleasant places to be. It is therefore not surprising that many would-be cyclists feel that the roads are too dangerous to cycle on. There is an argument that training will help overcome the perceived danger, however that argument is a bit like saying training will help you be a safer sky diver. True but that does not mean it does not have inherent dangers. People talk about cycling as being perceived as dangerous, but seem to ignore that there are inherent dangers. I think those inherent dangers are way less than the inherent benefits. The trouble is it must be dangerous if you need a crash helmet and fluorescent clothing to do it.

There is also the argument that speed doesn’t kill, just poor driving, that might be true, but I also believe that it is poor drivers who speed. In Lincoln there has been a war on Speed Cameras – “Speed camera vandal blamed for eight serious injuries after torching a THIRD of county’s cameras”. There have been 23 collisions at sites where the arsonist has damaged speed cameras.

I like cycling down country lanes, you tend to share the road with farmers and their tractors. I have always found that to be a positive experience and pretty much all tractor drivers pay attention to cyclists and either pull in or give you a wave to say thanks if you pull in.  But even slow speed can be dangerous in the case of this “Runaway tractor”.

Why do I go on about all of this. Well I suppose there are a few reasons, the main one being I think cycling is great fun and I’m not the only one.  Bike Hub reports on a survey where Dairylea commissioned a survey of 1,000 kids (between 5 and 11). The most popular choice of activity chosen by 54% was to play on their bikes, scooters and skateboards. So if nothing else in the name of progress we adults are badly letting down our kids by not making the streets much safer places to be on and get around on. Why do we prioritise our lives around motor vehicles with the potential to kill and maim?

Crap Walking & Cycling in Waltham Forest reports the shocking news that cycling injuries have increase by 12% over the last three years. Those responsible for traffic planning should be ashamed of themselves. Received wisdom is that as more people take to their bicycles then the roads get safer as motorists adapt their driving. This statistic seems to be at odds with that notion.

Talking about making “areas safer for children” a Parking Permit Scheme has been approved in a Cambridge area, near De Freville Avenue and the advantage of not having cars circulate is seen as of benefit to cyclists and pedestrians, which it may be. However I hope that an economic price is paid for those spaces.  Assuming a parking space is around the size of a car + 20% length then a Mondeo is 6m x 2m (rounded up). A quick web search shows a piece of land in Cambridge at a price of £40,000 for a plot of 23m x 4m (which works out as around £1.8M per acre). So the Mondeo would need around an eight of the space which works out around £5,000. So what should that be worth as a parking space? That is “our” land why should it be free why should parking spaces on the road be paid for out of the public purse?

Actually stuff all of that calculation nonsense, the price is a function of supply and demand. Here is a website where people offer their drives for parking – 5 minutes from the station – yours for £75 per calendar month, a bit more than the £60 a year that the City Council charges. This would seem to be a failure by the council to maximise our resources on our behalf. it is a pity it is such a political hot potato because I for one would be in favour of charging higher prices.

In any case the wouldn’t children be better of if there were no cars in the residential streets.

And finally in my occasional series on disused Phone Boxes here is one in Little Shelford being used as a library.


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