Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Save Hove Cycle Lanes: Rubbing salt into the wound

Protesters outside BH council offices
Conservatives confirmed their determination to demolish a flagship cycle freeway in Brighton and Hove and a “Save The Drive Cycle Lane” protest is launched. Russell Honeyman asks: “Why?”

22 February 2011. Last night the Conservative leader of minority controlled Brighton and Hove City Council confirmed her determination to demolish a flagship cycle freeway in the seaside town of Hove.

In response to my question about whether the plans would go ahead despite protests, Council leader Mary Mears said: “The proposal to remove the cycle lane from Grand Avenue and The Drive responds to concerns raised by residents and users alike … We remain committed to the safety of the cycling fraternity. Unlike some other cycle lanes in the city, the Grand Avenue/Drive scheme is not well used or appreciated. Furthermore its removal will improve traffic flow along the coast road from Shoreham Harbour and across the city.”

We’re talking about something rather more than a simple cycle lane. It is a “European-style cycle freeway”, for the most part segregated from traffic by being set into the pavement behind the on street parking. It was completed in 2008 as the centrepiece of Brighton and Hove’s successful bid to become a Cycle Demonstration Town, with £3million of government funding provided by Cycling England in the glory days of 2005. It is part of the infrastructure that won the Transport Authority of the Year award only last year, when the council was commended for cycling improvements that saw cycling in the city increase by 27% since 2006.

The route connects with the newly created South Downs national park with Hove’s seafront. It runs for around 4km, southwards from Downs access point at Dyke Railway Trail, to the sea via Hove station. The segregated cycle freeway section runs for a little under two kilometres along Grand Avenue and The Drive, this last section a wide double lane carriage way lined by classic Palladian-style mansion blocks until finally opening out onto Hove Lawns beneath a statue of Queen Victoria. With its rail connection and access to the Downs, the route forms part of strategic plans to improve access to the Downs and seafront as well as promoting cycling in the city.

The Tory administration wants the southern, freeway style section demolished – at the cost of £1.1m, according to budget proposals released 11 February.

There has been a chorus of protest from across the country, and fury from the sustainable transport community. The fury has been building for some time. Since Conservatives gained control of the council in 2007 they have cancelled successive components of the city’s plans for transport improvements, most notably the Old Shoreham Road scheme which was to have provided an east-west segregated cycle freeway linking the centres of Brighton, Hove and Portslade, and Marine Parade which was to have filled in the “missing link” in the national cycle route along the seafront. (click for more...)

On Saturday a group of cyclists braved rainy weather to cycle to the council offices to protest the planned closure. At the protest I met a man who helped plan the cycle freeway in 2005. Stuart Croucher was Transport Planning Manager for Brighton and Hove in 2005 when the city won grant funding from Cycling England as a Cycling Demonstration Town.

Mr Croucher said: “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 destroying this cycle freeway when they are cutting services across the city makes me really cross.”

Mr Croucher explained that segregated cycle lanes were key to getting a “step change” where the mass of ordinary people will get out and cycle. He said the commonest reason given for not cycling is that people don’t feel safe cycling in traffic. He also explained the cancellation of other components of the Cycle Demonstration Town scheme had rendered the cycle freeway incomplete. He lives in the area and says he cannot take his seven-year-old daughter cycling in traffic. The original plans envisaged thousands of school children cycling to school.

Control of the council is on a knife-edge and local elections are on 5 May. The cycle freeway runs through hotly contested Goldsmid ward, where Councillor Alex Phillips won a seat from the Conservatives for the Green Party at a by-election in 2009. She said: “At a time of cuts to frontline services, leaving vulnerable people to fend for themselves, it’s not right that money is spent to get rid of this important and well used cycle lane.”

The budget comes before the council on 3 March. The administration has a minority of seats on the council, but the opposition is split. The Tories have 25 seats, against 26 controlled by Greens and Labour (13 each), and one controlled by the Liberal Democrats. Both Greens and Labour oppose the plan.

Aside from fury, there is an air of puzzlement. Why would the administration want to destroy cycle lanes that run along a wide carriageway through a residential area?

I asked whether the council intended to press ahead with the closure, despite the protests. A council press officer told me she had been instructed to refer queries to the council leader. “It is a political matter,” she said.

I asked for details of how the concerns were assessed, and who the concerned residents were, but this request was ignored. So far as I could ascertain there is no public consultation, traffic assessment or other report to define these concerns.

Councillor Ian Davey, Green Party spokesman for Transport said: “No evidence has been produced by the council to show there is demand for the removal of the cycle lane. On the contrary, we have set up an online petition to assess support for the cycle lane, which topped 2,100 signatures today. We are starting to identify the local component in that support.” (Link below)

Stuart Croucher talked to me in detail about the assessments planners undertake in their work. (I will publish the full interview on my blog. (link below)). He said: “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.”

Maybe he has something there. Instead of explaining why the cycle lanes were to be removed, Mary Mears statement detailed new facilities for cars. “Our proposals as regards improvements to the city’s car parks are also important to residents, visitors and vehicle users. Good, safe and secure parking space is both vital for the continued growth of the local economy and something that vehicle users should be able to expect. We recognise the different ways that people travel around the city and our budget proposals support choice and the city should be easy to navigate however people choose to travel.”

The Conservative budget includes provision of £4.5, for improvements to car parking, against overall cost savings of £82 million over the next five years, in order to deliver a 1% reduction in council tax. Opposition councillors warn of significant cuts to front line services.

Parking has been identified as a prime concern for residents. Local elections are coming in May 2005. Maybe the Conservatives have decided to shore up the Tory vote with pro-car measures.

Councillor Mary Mears dismissed concerns that the council should repay grants if plans to demolish cycle lanes go ahead. She said: “Concerns have been raised that we might have to pay back money previously given us by Cycling England; however this quango is about to be abolished so it is not an issue.”

Russell Honeyman is a freelance writer and green activist.

Save Hove Cycle Lanes petition:

More on Cycle Lanes on Russell’s Blog:

Protest updates: Save The Lanes Facebook:!/home.php?sk=group_195693933792574

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