|Cyclists gather before joining the protest|
20 Feb 2011. Russell Honeyman interviewed the man who laid the plans for Brighton and Hove’s award winning Cycling Demonstration Town scheme – and is watching them being destroyed by a minority Tory controlled council.
Stuart Croucher is a quietly spoken professional who seemed cheerful enough in his cycling helmet and high visibility waterproofs. Only toward the end of our interview did he reveal his anger about the impact that plans to close Hove’s cycle freeway (a European-style segregated cycle lane) might have on his family life. He talked about his experiences with his seven-year-old daughter, Josie. He said: “When we told her the cycle lane was to be closed she was really upset that she won’t be able to cycle to the seaside anymore.”
I met Mr Croucher at Saturday’s (19 February 2011) protest against plans to scrap the cycle freeway along The Drive in Hove. He was Transport Planning Manager for Brighton and Hove in 2005 when the city won grant funding from Cycling England as a Cycling Demonstration Town. Cycle freeways were a central element of the scheme. Last year the city won the Transport Authority of the Year award with commendation for improvements to cycle infrastructure in the city.
But a Tory administration gained control of the city in 2007 and has cancelled key parts of the scheme and now plans the latest closure.
Mr Croucher now works as an Urban Designer for Crossrail, designing spaces around London’s new rail link.
I asked how he felt about the destruction of his plans for transforming Brighton and Hove into a cycling city. “I don’t see them as my plans, they were drawn up by a team,” Mr Croucher said. “I understand the arguments in a professional way.”
He hesitated a moment. “But as a citizen of Brighton and Hove I feel deeply angry. It feels as if progress, not just in transport, but also in many other ways, is coming to a halt. Now it’s going into reverse. Seeing the council planning to spend £1.1 million on destroying this cycle freeway when they are cutting essential services across the city makes me really cross.” (more...)
Brighton and Hove has a reputation as a progressive city, boasting a cosmopolitan population, world-renowned festivals ranging from the arts to Brighton Pride, and an award winning transport system, But much of this is threatened with change. The council’s disheartening budget proposals for 2001-12 boast mainly of saving £82 million over five years to fund a 1% reduction in council tax. Opposition councillors are warning that jobs will be lost in critical front-line services such as the police and social services. Meantime the budget proposes spending £1.1m on ripping out The Drive cycle freeway and borrowing money to spend £4.5m doing up car parks.
The administration has a minority of seats on the council, but the opposition is split. Brighton council is made up of 25 Conservative, 13 Labour and 13 Green Party councillors, with one Liberal Democrat and one Independent member, and one vacant post. Labour and Greens oppose the plan to scrap to the cycle lane.
I pressed Mr Croucher. I ask: “Why is the administration destroying this cycle lane?”
He replied: “There’s no transport planning rationale for what they are doing. None of the reasons they are stating appear to be valid.”
“I understand they refused two other cycle lanes because they said they did not have the money. To then spend money on ripping up this cycle lane suggests it is political dogma. It’s difficult to come to any other conclusion than that the leaders of the Tory administration are anti-cycling.”
So why is the city ripping out this cycle lane?
Item 3.11 of the city’s budget proposals, released 11 February 2011, reads: “In order to improve the visual impact and traffic flow along this important north – south corridor including access to the A27/A23 from the A259/210 Shoreham Harbour it is proposed to remove the cycle lane along both sides of Grand Avenue and The Drive. An indicative cost of removing the lanes including changes to the signalling is £1.1m to be funded by a further topslice from LTP grant. … There is a low risk that up to £0.3m grant funding may need to be repaid.”
BBC News South reported Saturday’s protest against the closure of the lanes: The report said: “A spokesman for Brighton and Hove City Council said the proposal to remove existing cycle lanes is in response to local demand for this action and uses one-off money so it would only defer the implementation of savings - not replace them.”
An online petition against the closure has received signatures 1,300. (2,100 two days later - 22 Feb)
I asked Mr Croucher whether he had made allowance for the demands of Shoreham Harbour when his team planned the cycle lane. “Shoreham Harbour wasn’t in our plans,” he replied. “Lots of parts of the route to Shoreham from this part of town are single lane, so the route has other bottlenecks. Where the cycle lane was built has plenty of spare capacity. Removing the cycle lane won’t make any difference in terms of traffic flow. Anyway, you don’t do these things in case you might need them – that’s predict and provide methodology, it’s outdated. Now we do things based on present demand, and I haven’t seen any demonstration of that demand.”
What about safety concerns? Mr Croucher discussed the question at length, focussing on the problem of where to put a segregated cycle lane (separated by a kerb from traffic). “Allowing for the driveways is hard. You’ve either got to put the lane kerbside of the parked cars or in the carriageway. We elected to put it on the kerbside. It’s safer.”
“But look”, he says. “Safety is not the objection stated in the proposals to remove this lane. The Argus ran a story last week; they’d done an FOI about cycle causalities on the cycle lane. Causalities were down 20%, I think. The proof is in the statistics. With cycling increasing across the city you’d expect causalities to go up. If the Argus is right, there has actually been a significant reduction.”
“Some people say we don’t need segregated cycle lanes. The reason we chose segregated cycle lanes is not for experienced cyclists. It’s for the majority of people who say they would cycle, but say they are too scared to. We looked to Europe where there is experience of achieving high rates of cycling and so we adopted the Copenhagen model of segregated cycle lanes.”
“When we drew up the original plans, we proposed an H shaped network of segregated cycle freeways that would put a majority of this part of the city, something like 70% of the people by memory, within 800 meters of a cycle freeway - a segregated lane protected from vehicular traffic. One of the legs of the H was the seafront cycle lane, which is a great route. Plus we planned to use two other routes with spare capacity. One was the Old Shoreham Road, and then these two connected by The Drive cycle freeway,”
“The first phase was The Drive but the next phase, the Old Shoreham Road, was watered down and eventually cancelled by the Tory administration.”
The Old Shoreham Road Cycle Lance scheme was cancelled in 2009 in a decision by the Conservative controlled Environment Cabinet, who cited safety concerns. I ask about these safety concerns, and what Mr Croucher means by “watered down”.
“Ok. I said the original plans involved segregated cycling freeways along the Old Shoreham Road. We planned to get children cycling to school and it had to be safe. When the plans were finally drawn up the lanes were little more than paint on the road, and in some parts where they were most needed, like near Hove Park, they disappeared altogether.”
“Let’s go back to the original vision. The purpose of the Cycling Demonstration Town project, an idea proposed by Cycling England, was that they wanted to see if we could boost cycling in England closer to European levels,.” (Figures published in 2007 showed around 1% of trips in the UK were made by bicycle vs. 27% in the Netherlands). “So they offered grants equivalent to the money spent in the EU, per head, and invited tenders. Five Cycling Demonstration Towns were selected, and Brighton was one of them. It was sort of a three-year experiment. Different cities did different things. Brighton went for a combination of “above standard” cycle lanes and a publicity scheme designed to get more people to use sustainable transport, including the Personal Travel Plan campaign.”
Cycling in the city increased by 27% between 2006 and 2009 according to the commendation received by Brighton & Hove council’s transport team when it picked up the Transport Authority of the Year award on 15 July last year.
I phoned Mr Croucher a day after our meeting to check facts, and he added a personal note:
“I live in Hove. My daughter Josie goes to primary school about a mile away. She wants to cycle and I want too let her, but the only route is along the Old Shoreham Road which, as it is currently laid out, is intimidating even for confident cyclists. If the Cycling Demo Town proposals had been delivered, we could cycle to school together. We have cycled all the way into the city centre along the cycle freeway and then the seafront cycle route. This lane is the safest way from our house to connect to the seafront route.
“When we told Josie that the cycle lane was to be removed, she was really upset that she won’t be able to cycle to the seaside anymore.”
Russell Honeyman is a freelance writer and a green activist.