15 months ago, The Guardian published a feature story by Matt Seaton about Darlington's ambitions as a Cycling Demonstration Town. The article was based on a long interview with then Cycling Officer Oli Lougheed.
Despite Oli's apparent chipper attitude to his job, with £1.5m rolling in from Cycling England to spend over 3 years, he moved on to Manchester shortly afterwards. But the article is instructive in laying out both the short-term ideas and long-term ambitions/vision of the local authority.
As we argued at our recent Symposium, the local authority alone can be quite good, if they get it right, at short-term plans. Witness the near doubling in cycling in Darlington over the past year. But long term ambition requires much more. Some quotes from the Guardian article are instructive: Under the new scheme, Darlington's transport team plans to put in nine or 10 "radial routes", running from the periphery right to the centre....The new radial routes will reassign priorities where they intersect the ring road, and will make all the formerly pedestrianised areas dual use. The philosophy here is that cyclists can coexist perfectly safely with walkers, European-style; where it is clear that an area is dual use, cyclists automatically adjust their behaviour, slowing down and riding sensibly...."The object is to create boulevards rather than traffic corridors," says Tim Crawshaw, the council's chief designer of the public environment.
"The difficult thing is that you build the infrastructure and promote it," says Lougheed, "but it takes years for people to change their habits."
The hierarchy of road users that transport officers like Lougheed now work to reads as follows: disabled and visually impaired people first, pedestrians next, then cyclists, public transport, delivery vehicles, cars used for business with more than one occupant and, at the bottom of the heap, single-occupancy motorists.
As I cycle down a broad residential street with Lougheed, he tells me how a simple measure like taking out the central white line will reduce traffic speeds. Without the sense of a safe, segregated corridor down which they can drive at 35mph, motorists instinctively move towards the middle of the road. But then they become aware of needing to drive more slowly in case they meet a car coming the other way. All of a sudden, they're driving at 25mph - just because a white line has been taken out.
The Cycling Campaign has been doing considerable research on peoples', and especially motorists' habits. Yet we see very little sign yet of these being challenged by, for example, reassigned priorities where radial cycle routes intersect the inner ring road. Indeed, the current works behind Marks and Sparks indicate otherwise - cyclists will cross the ring road with pedestrians at a Toucan crossing.
With Darlington something like half way through its Cycling Demonstration Town period, this would be a useful time to reassess these ambitions:
*Were they really there in the first place, or was this just media spin? *Will we still get our 10 radial routes, or have some been dropped? *What happens when radial routes hit the inner ring road? *How does the hierarchy of road users tally with the allocation of road space?
These and many other questions should not only be asked of the council. The reason why ambitions change or get dropped is as much through political opposition as lack of political will, and in Darlington there are certainly at least two outside lobbies who are doing everything they can to keep cycling at the very bottom of the hierarchy or road users.
But Darlington cannot simply "demonstrate" to the rest of the country what can be done. We also need central government support to get further up that hierarchy. Depressingly predictable, then, that our leaders failed to see the connection between the recent petition to 10 Downing Street (to give cyclists and pedestrians priority over motorists at minor road junctions) and their "new orthodoxy in transport planning", the hierarchy of road users. RIP Joined Up Thinking.