Let’s talk about an issue that’s dividing our city right now: traffic and cycling lanes.
You know I’m not one to dodge a tough issue and I also like to try my best to really understand something from the inside. Well, this is no different.
Ever since the easing of lockdown more people have taken to the roads I’ve been inundated with messages. I’ve had messages from motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and many others and there’s only one thing that they all have in common: everyone is angry, very, very angry!
So I’ve been trying my best to get my head around what’s happening and the only way I could do that was to get out and about myself.
I jumped in with both feet, literally, and over the last fortnight have travelled right along the contentious part of Old Shoreham Road, the length of Kingsway from Hove Lagoon to Brighton Marina, and through every ward in Hove, Hangleton and Portslade. I’ve done this repeatedly by foot, on a bike, as a motorist, on busses, and I’ve even done it on an e-scooter! I’ve been busy.
The first thing I want to say is that I know why people are angry. I get it.
Several times I walked, cycled and scooted past mile after mile of road traffic that was at a complete standstill. This isn’t good for our economy, our environment, or for us as people. It is unacceptable.
Quite close to the Marina I was stopped by a family from Crawley in a car who were asking me where they could park as they wanted to go to the Sealife Centre. They ended up going to the marina and getting a taxi. I’ve spoken to disabled people who’s only access to the Hove seafront has been snatched away with the removal of so many disabled parking bays. I’ve read deeply frustrating messages from people who simply must use our roads for their livelihoods and yet each journey now takes three or four times as long as it did pre-covid.
In no way are any of these situations, and the many more I know of, acceptable in a modern city like ours.
By experiencing so many different modes of transport in one period I really got to see things from different perspectives. One of the surprises for me was just how many ways there are to get about these days. One of the times I cycled along to the marina I counted over 20 rollerbladers, 8 skateboarders, a dozen electric scooters and other ‘e things’, and one bloke who was running as such a pace along the seafront he kept up with everyone in the cycle lane and even overtook some!
My best moment on an e-scooter was down towards the lagoon where I was overtaken by a young girl on a skateboard!
So, after al this experience what do I think the way forward is?
First and foremost is what covid has done to our roads. During lockdown our streets emptied of traffic but people flooded roads for exercise and needed to distance. It was totally right to adjust to this new reality of the time and get additional cycle-lanes up and running. But since then several new priorities have emerged, like getting our economy back up and running. In a city like ours that means allowing tradespeople to move around and shoppers to get to our retails outlets and workers to get to their jobs.
Because of covid we’re being discouraged from using public transport. Because the biggest determinant of who who suffers worst from infection is age, I’m not going to judge anyone in their 60’s and above for choosing to travel around our city by car right now, and when they do I want them to arrive safely and in a good mood!
In my experience, the thing that gets residents and communities most upset is when change is imposed on them without anyone bothering to ask or involve them in the decision. Powerlessness is a horrible feeling. Right now there are a lot of people feeling utterly powerless and bewildered about who and how decisions about road use are being made. Having spent so much time in recent days travelling around, plus reading so many of your messages, I really do understand and share this feeling.
I have seen with my own eyes people shouting at each other across a road, a driver in a rage bulldoze bollards on Hove seafront, and experienced a cyclist whizz passed swearing at me and everyone else for not going fast enough when in fact he would have been breaking the speed limit had he been in a car. Please everyone, take a deep breath!
So how should we move forward? I have some views on that.
First, council needs to state unequivocally that any changes to road and pavement usage made during the pandemic are temporary. Permanent changes should only be made on the back of a meaningful consultation – not a sham one that simply relies on counting the highest number of angry emails on either side of an argument. Changes in use should be part of a long-term strategy, not short-term opportunism by people who are simply ‘anti-car’ and uncaring as to the plight of people who have no alternative.
Then we all need to accept that the use of roads and pavements is changing and we can’t stop it, we can only do our best to get it right and adapt sensitively. Cyclists can’t wish away cars and drivers can’t wish away pedestrians, and none of us can stop the rise in popularity of new forms of getting around like e-scooters.
The space between opposing buildings in our city has remained the same for hundreds of years. Back then it was used for promenading and horses and carts. For almost a century it was a simple allocation of roads for cars and a few bikes and pavements for pedestrians. But as we move away from cars for shorter distances and urban travel we’re moving to a diverse set of alternatives as there’s so much choice these days. Yet the space we have remains the same. So we have to get an awful lot better at sharing that space safely and amicably than we are right now.
I love cars and driving, I always have. But ages ago when I moved to my flat in Lansdowne Place I realised it simply wasn’t practical or environmental to keep a car here, so I sold it and have made do with public transport since. That’s worked really well for me, but just because it worked for me doesn’t mean that my choice should forced on everyone else, especially without alternatives. I didn’t go into politics to force everyone to make the choices I have, I want to solve problems by bringing people together.
So the next thing council urgently needs to do is figure out some brilliant alternatives to daily car use and set about implementing a long-term strategy to make it a reality. The war on cars needs to end. Punishing car use is easy, providing a more desirable alternative for local travel is hard but that should be the priority.
It feels like madness to me that our city doesn’t have a world-class ‘park-and-ride’ where visitors can park on the outskirts of the city, have charging points for their electric cars, and use super-efficient ways of getting to the parts of town they need to get to in order to eat, relax, shop, visit, and simply enjoy our city and spend their money here. Council, please, for crying out loud just get this done.
Up in Westminster we have a job to do too. Government needs to help cities like our adjust and adapt. Take e-scooters for example. Right now they’re legal to rent but not to own, that’s just crazy. I was really sniffy about them until I gave it a go for a couple of days. I nipped from my flat to the Brighton Centre to visit a food charity and it took me five minutes. Last weekend I popped along to the marina and met a friend for lunch and it took about a fifth of the time it would have taken on a bus. What’s important is it’s not just convenience, these journeys were also zero-carbon (my electricity provider doesn’t use fossil fuels). I love walking, but I didn’t have time to walk to the marina that day, the scooter was just perfect.
The point is that these new forms of ultra-local transport are finding an important place alongside cars, buses, and walking. Over time, as we’ve seen, the balence will shift as to how and who uses them. We need to be aware of this right now, as individuals and as a city and country, and we need to start preparing for it. Just look at the photos of Hove from a century ago and today – our road and pavement usage has been changing ever since it was first built.
I want e-scooters to be regulated and lessons to be a condition of sale. I want car driving lessons to include curtesy and safety towards cyclists and other kinds of road users. And we’re all going to have to accept that ‘cycle lanes’ aren’t going to be for peddle-powered bikes exclusively, they’re going to be the place where people using different kinds of mobility devices move together at similar speeds.
From rollerbladers to people on those new electric wheel things. I know this is difficult for some cyclists, especially those who go to the trouble of spraying ‘no e-scooters’ onto cycle lanes, but roads and pavements are certainly not safe for them and we cannot, in a world striving for zero carbon, stop progress.
They key to all this is sensitivity, empathy, and a lot of talking and listening by the people making decisions about transport in our city. We all need to move around, and we all pay for the roads, pavement and cycle-lanes and have a right to use them in a way that suits our individual needs whilst not disrupting others.
In the coming years there’ll be a huge diversity in the methods we chose to move around and I find that really exciting. It’ll transform our city in brilliant ways if we get it right, but lead to more misery if we get it wrong. It will empower people with mobility challenges or growing older to enjoy a much more mobile, extended life that brings the whole city into reach. Or if we get it wrong people will feel trapped, priced-out, or excluded from the best bits of life in our modern brilliant city.
So to the people making decisions about this I beg: there can be no stitch-ups when it comes to changing the use of our public spaces. Every decision needs to be transparent, no back-room deals. People and communities need to be brought back together, we cannot allow a ‘culture war’ between car and van owners verses cyclists – that would be a terrible outcome and indictment of our political class right now.
We must find ways to share space and respect the transport choices other people make and the fact that each person and family experiences different challenges and needs. Car use will change profoundly in the years ahead, firstly with the brilliant move towards electric that’s already underway, but we can’t punish drivers for making a choice for which there’s no workable alternative.
I know this is a subject that really gets people’s temperature up so please, please, be as respectful as possible so we can all learn from each others experiences. I’m especially keen to hear what you’d like from me as we move forward with this tricky issue because I want to help us move forward on this issue and not be paralysed by acrimony.