|Cycling to the airport with my daughter|
There are cycle-paths much like this
for the entire 18 km distance from
our home to Groningen airport.
A few months ago we entered a competition at a "business contact day" and were lucky enough to win a pair of tickets for the very convenient flybe service direct from Groningen airport to London Southend Airport. Groningen airport is only 18 km from our home in Assen, easy cycling distance, so we travelled by bike to the airport on Friday to get the flight.
On arrival at Southend-on-Sea, the most straightforward way to travel to the town was by rail. The railway station is conveniently located opposite the airport terminal. It cost £2.90 per person to cover a distance of just over 2 miles (3 km).
A13 Queensway Urban Realm and Cycle improvements
|"Cycle Improvements" ? Where ?|
How much worse could it have been
before the improvements ?
The junction has a sign which lists organisations involved in providing funds and even has a couple of words of Dutch on it. But there is little if anything here to benefit cyclists. A short stretch of shared use pavement, a very slow toucan crossing and a couple of ASLs would seem to be all that cyclists are provided with here, though the road is enormous and very busy.
I made the following video, showing how its actually a huge empty space dominated by motor vehicles:
It being the parlance of present day planners, I can't help but imagine that this new design was sold with a promise that it would "create a place". But there is no "place" here which anyone wants to be in. What we actually have is a huge area of asphalt dedicated to motor vehicles alongside another huge anonymous concrete area which is dedicated to absolutely nothing at all. No-one stops here unless they have to. Everyone who you see here is desperate to get away as soon as they can. This is not a destination, it's merely an inconvenience on the way to a destination.
What this also is is a terrible missed opportunity. Rather than a genuine advance in infrastructure to encourage cycling, Southend built this. However, there's nothing here which comes even close to best practice with regard to cycling. It will take an awful lot more than this to truly turn Southend into a "Bike Friendly City".
A huge four lane wide Advanced Stop Line is as much as has been done for cyclists here. It apparently cost 7.5 million pounds to do this. Move this around to take a better look yourself or show a bigger map
This is claimed to be a "Shared Space", but there is clearly nothing remotely "shared" about it. The safety of this area has been questioned, and there are complaints that it is being "ruined" by skateboarders who use it because facilities specifically for them are distant. This conflict of uses could have been avoided by building a decent skate park nearby for a small fraction of the cost of this development. Rather, this is an example of wide pavement syndrome.
|A drawing of what Victoria Gateway was supposed to look like according to the council. One car. Lots of people walking, Trees. Blue sky. It doesn't reflect the reality|
A local blogger, Ria, already wrote about an interactive light show on the open concrete area and discusses the area further. She had "lazily dismissed it a few times during the day as it was slightly off-path from between Southend Victoria and the high street. And my small curiosity didn’t beg at me to take a few seconds detour from the fast-paced crowd to even ask" and said that "The Victoria Gateway doesn’t generate a lot of footfall as is. And why should it? Even without the skaters there, people have no reason for going beyond the short walk between Southend Victoria and the high street."
Ria is absolutely right ! This is not the sort of place that anyone would want to stop in, no matter how much money is spent on a lighting show. It's a desert in the middle of a large road junction. It's not a nice place to be and won't become a destination for anyone.
Also interesting to read Ria's views on the skateboarders: "Many even go so far as to complain, if not about the unruly appearance of Southend’s skaters loitering in the area, then with concerns of safety for the young skateboarders attempting tricks and falling off their skateboards so close to the traffic. You may complain about the skateboarding there, but you have to admit that they tend to keep to themselves and they seem to be the only ones utilising that vast area at all."
The idea that anywhere like this can become a vital "place" that people want to go to just because a huge amount of money has been spent on a new road surface is patently absurd.
Crossing the road
One of the other things that struck us as we walked from the railway station to our bed and breakfast was how long it took merely to cross the road in Southend.
Southend has a lot of traffic lights and pedestrians are required to wait behind them for a very long time before they can cross the road. The majority of the crossings have excessive waiting times for pedestrians. We often had to wait more than a minute to cross the road. By the sea-front we found just one example which was actually designed to prioritize walking, just like their equivalents in the Netherlands. Why aren't they all like this ?
|Multi-stage crossings with railing cages in the middle were a common sight in Southend. These make progress slow for pedestrians, effectively increasing the length of journeys. They make driving more attractive than cycling.|
|Where it's not convenient for drivers that pedestrians should be able to cross, Southend has erected barriers to prevent pedestrians from making efficient and direct journeys. We wanted to cross the road at this point but it was made impossible by railings so we had to keep walking and make a less direct journey. These are an artifact of 1960s road design to encourage driving. They are hostile to walking. Assen had railings just like this in the 1960s, but got rid of them decades ago, along with the through traffic which made them "necessary".|
|More railings at the corner of what seemed to be an excessively large junction. Not only are railings like this inconvenient for pedestrians, they also are dangerous for cyclists. who be squashed against them by larger vehicles.|
|Pedestrianized street in Southend. This is a thriving area. People like to be where the motor vehicles are not.|
|Very small children rode scooters through the pedestrianized area, but even on such a safe machine and in a supposedly safe environment, parents feel that helmets are warranted.|
|At this point, the pedestrianized street is crossed by a road. Cars are given priority and pedestrians have to wait quite a long time to get a green light. Just as in other parts of the city, most people cross the road against a red light because waiting times are excessive. Note no cycling sign in the pedestrianized street. In Assen we have pedestrian priority signs instead or forms of street which exclude motor traffic but allow cycling.|
|Just outside the pedestrianized street we're back to normal British road design, hostile to cyclists and pedestrians. The one modern innovation on this street is a charging point for electric vehicles, the fuel for which is subsidized by the local council (and local tax-payers). Cyclists have been forgotten about and many take to the pavement for the sake of their own safety.|
The sea front area is a "shared space". This changed in 2011, with the area being renamed "City Beach". A small sign requests that pedestrians, cyclists and drivers should "Share space".
Regular readers will know that I'm skeptical of the benefits of shared space. I've seen many shared spaces now, both in the Netherlands and in the UK and I've yet to see an example which is better than other possible arrangements. Claims for safety are unfounded, the needs of vulnerable road users are neglected. Nothing that I saw in Southend changed my view.
This area is adjacent to the quicker pedestrian crossing shown above. It has a 20 mph speed limit controlled by speed cameras and I think it's fair to say that the speed limit has actually made it relatively pleasant given the enormous flows of traffic here. However, the traffic is still a problem. If this is truly supposed to be a place for people travelling by foot or by bicycle then why is it still dominated by a continuous and heavy flow of through motor traffic 24 hours a day ?
The opportunity to fix the problem at source wasn't taken. As a result, there is little "sharing" going on. Drivers have a road to drive on, pedestrians have pavements. While the bravest cyclists ride on the road, others stick to the pavement.
|In this "shared space" there's a very obvious distinction between the space for pedestrians and the space for motorists and it was quite obvious which of these areas most people on bikes thought was safer|
|A woman with children on the back of a tricycle provided another example of where most people feel safe to cycle .|
|This cyclist clearly found it more pleasant to make her journey on the pedestrian area than on the road "shared" with cars.|
Next day update: As is commonly the case with "Shared Space", this one needed to have pedestrian crossings retrofitted to it so that people could stop the traffic and cross the road. There has been at least one injury already on the pavement. You may also enjoy a local cyclist's video of "sharing" this road with drivers who overtake even at the speed limit.
NCN route 16
There is a Sustrans National Cycle Network route through Southend. This goes along the sea-front, using the pavement rather than the road through the "shared space" area. As is so often the case with these routes, it's not designed to allow efficient and safe cycling.
I only saw roughly a mile length of the route because we were walking, not cycling. But even in this short distance there were obvious problems. Under the pier, cyclists go into a blind corner. Further to the west it consists of a path which is far too narrow for safe bidirectional use and positioned so close to car parking that it creates a "dooring" problem.
wide pavements on both sides of the road, the cycle-path, two lanes of traffic, two lanes of parked cars and a wide verge in the centre of the road. There is simple no reason for this cycle-path to be so narrow or positioned where it is.
While we were walking along the sea front we noticed something that seemed a little odd. People would occasionally ride bikes past us, and then within a few short minutes we'd see them return again. No-one seemed to be going very far at all. The explanation came when I looked at the map on return from our holiday:
It turns out that the other problem with the Sustrans NCN path is that is doesn't actually go anywhere.
This cycle-route is approximately 6 miles long along the sea front. Try to turn towards the city centre and you would instead find yourself riding either on a shared use path alongside, or on the enormous "Queensway" dual-carriageway, leading to the advanced stop line at the huge junction in the last section. Due to the central streets excluding bicycles, you can't usefully reach many of the shops by bike. There is no sign at all in this town of the dense grid of high quality cycle-paths required for a high cycling modal share.
None of Sustrans' suggested routes could have taken us so far as the airport on any quality of infrastructure.
door zone route along the sea front is supposedly a "hybrid" path. This is a low quality design of cycle-path which exists in the UK only as the result of a misunderstanding in 2008 by Cambridge Cycling Campaign members. How on earth did Southend pick this up as a good example to try to copy ? If you're copying from the Netherlands, it's important to look for the best examples.
Cycle-lanes, contra-flows and filtered permeability
Southend's smaller streets offer some utility for cycling and here there is some good news for cyclists resulting from low cost measures. On-road contra-flow cycle-lanes and other filtered permeability improve the convenience of cycling. Unfortunately, it's not comprehensive and design standards are not high. It's not enough to create the comprehensive and subjectively safe network required for everyone to cycle.
|By the sea-front, this contra-flow lane allows cyclists to descend one of the steepest hills in Southend in a narrow lane against the direction of motor traffic, picking up considerable speed as they do so.|
|Southend has narrow cycle-lanes on some of the minor roads but they're often in "the door zone" like this one. Faced with such poor cycling infrastructure, cyclists will often use the pavements instead although those are not ideal either. Pavement cycling problems are usually in reality poor cycling infrastructure problems.|
|A contra-flow lane in a residential street. This is relatively usable because it creates a more direct route by bike.|
|Poor implementation (kerbs, between car-parking areas so risk of reversing cars) but useful none-the-less. Cycles can go in a straight line here while cars cannot. This idea, but very much more of it and very much more evolved, makes up a good part of the Dutch cycling network.|
|On-road cycle-lanes are rarely truly beneficial to cyclists. This cycle-lane creates an expectation that cyclists will dive to the kerb immediately after passing parked cars. At a junction, the kerb is the wrong place to be, even for a left turn.|
Car parks in Southend were full and overflowing with cars. This is something we're not used to seeing. A successful transport policy which convinces people to walk or cycle instead of drive greatly decreases the need for car parking. This can especially be seen in Dutch cities like Assen where car parks don't fill up despite low cost parking.
Providing such a large number of car parking spaces is a huge cost for the town. All this driving also costs the people who live in the town. Good quality cycling infrastructure costs less to build than not to build, but for that to apply the quality level needs to be much higher than that of what I saw in Southend.
On Sunday morning we walked back to the centre of Southend and took a bus to the airport. This was slightly less expensive than the train but took more time. If we'd set off by foot instead of waiting then we would have reached our destination sooner.
The bus journey took us the two miles back to the airport along roads which had almost no cycling infrastructure at all. This being Sunday morning there were a few recreational cyclists in evidence, riding on the roads, and we also saw one child riding on the pavement. There were a few very narrow on-road cycle-lanes and a few shared-use paths but nothing which added up to a useful network, nothing which would have made cycling to airport into a safe and pleasant experience.
Unfortunately, we didn't recognise the airport entrance as we went past it and the bus driver didn't automatically stop at the airport. We were dropped off at the side of the road a little further along and had to walk back to the airport. At this point we had to deal with walking near Southend airport. The entrance is guarded by a huge roundabout. This has no cycling facilities or assistance for anyone crossing the road:
The area immediately outside Southend Airport. Very hostile for cycling and walking. Larger map
On arrival in Groningen we found my daughter's boyfriend had ridden from Assen to meet us so we cycled 18 km back home together on cycle-paths which stretch the entire distance.
So what is holding Southend back ? It's not the weather, it's not that journeys are long and it's not that it's a particularly hilly place either.
|Local newspaper clipping.|
The crash happened on a road
near the airport, not far from the
roundabout shown above. No
cycling infrastructure along
here. I hope she recovers.
People don't need to be persuaded to cycle. They just need the infrastructure to change so that they are not continuously persuaded not to. While cycling means indirect journeys in the close company of motorized vehicles and is neither convenient nor safe, you can't just tell people to cycle and expect them to take it up as if they'd never thought of the idea themselves. What's needed is infrastructural change which enables people to ride bikes without feeling like they are in mortal danger as they do so.
Cycling doesn't have a training problem. It doesn't have a PR or marketing problem. What is being faced in the UK is an infrastructure problem. Southend, like many towns, actually demonstrates very well how infrastructure influences behaviour. Changes made in the 1960s resulted in the town which exists today and resulted in the traffic patterns which were planned for. Historical photos of Dutch towns in the 1960s look just like photos from the UK at the same time. However Dutch towns no longer look like that. They changed again in order to make cycling attractive once again. That is what resulted in the surge in cycling and Britain could do exactly the same thing.
Unfortunately British towns, including Southend, are not doing it. They are trying to change while also trying to stay the same, repeating the same errors as have been made elsewhere.
|Southend local newspaper|
is "cynical" about the
intentions of politicians
The motherlode of sustainability jargon is to be found on another council LSTF page which contains all these words: "The focus of the 2015/16 revenue programme will be to build seamlessly on the current LSTF programme, improving sustainable transport connectivity, thus enabling people to travel conveniently in and between the growth areas of the JAAP, Southend Central Area and east Southend development sites without reliance on the car. The programme comprises complimentary work streams delivered with established partners: Marketing, raising awareness, and information provision: through the development of a PTP smartphone application, targeted marketing for walking cycling and PT, and supporting a further social enterprise led Travel Hub, providing on-site Personalised Travel Planning (PTP), information and advice; Access to work and education: supporting employers and SMEs to embed workplace travel plans, providing PTP at workplaces, higher education establishments and Job Centres, and delivering “Learning in Motion”, a joint Sustrans/SBC programme embedding cycling in the curriculum with primary/secondary schools; Improving sustainable transport links: through wayfinding, and encouraging use of new walking and cycling routes". Wow.
An awful lot of organisations are involved in maintaining an awful lot of websites and producing an awful lot of paperwork. Unfortunately, it's all nonsense. No-one reads this stuff and decides to ride a bike on the back of it. The value of these words does not add up to the value of one metre of cycle-path (and one-metre on its own is not very useful at all).
It's very obvious why towns and cities like Southend are not making progress in cycling. They're doing a lot of talking and even spending quite a lot of money but they're simply not making the investment that they need to make in the things that they need to invest in. The path to world class results is simple: follow world class best practice. We'd be delighted to show you how.
Is cycling too expensive ?
From what I've been able to make out from a variety of sources, redevelopment of the two "Shared Space" areas, neither of which offer much in the way of benefits to cyclists, together cost around fifteen million pounds. These two schemes alone consumed enough money to have cycling at Dutch levels (€30 per person per year) for about four years in Southend.
Spent well, this money could have achieved a great deal. Unfortunately, Southend cyclists got nothing more than a few ASLs, a very slow toucan crossing and a short length of shared use path.
|Southend spent enough money to pay for 100 km of cycle-path|
like this. It would have been a good start towards the grid of
very good quality required for a high modal share. Instead,
local cyclists got a few ASLs, the slow toucan and shared
In any case, the only reason why cycling has a cost greater than its benefit in the UK is that the money is spent on a combination of building low quality (though sometimes very expensive) infrastructure and production of copious quantities of paperwork, neither of which achieve an increase in cycling. Good quality infrastructure which actually does result in more cycling pays for itself several times over.
Mistakes already made are difficult to reverse, but it's time to just get on with it. Don't wait another reminded meforty years to make a start. Copy from best practice to achieve world class results.
Next day update
Rachel Aldred reminded me that Southend received extra funding as a "Cycling Town". More examples of the results of this can be found here.
14 year old buy trapped under bus in shared space.
Geography of Southend
People often wonder if their geography makes their town uniquely unfit for cycling. This is not the case for Southend. Southend-on-Sea has a slightly smaller population than Groningen in the Netherlands. It's a very compact town, approximately half the size of either Assen or Groningen with a population density twice that of Groningen and roughly five times that of Assen. Such a small place should be ideal for cycling. Journeys within the town can only be over short distances. I haven't been able to find climate date for Southend, but given that other places nearby have mild weather we can expect this to be less extreme than these Dutch cities.
Southend does have some hills, particularly near the sea front, but they're not extreme. Roads mostly take routes along the hills and not directly up them. In any case, London Southend Airport, two miles inland is up the hill, but its only 17 m above sea level.
Cycling and walking facilities aside, we really enjoyed our weekend in Southend-on-Sea. In particular I must point out that The Railway Hotel must be one of the best pubs in the UK (excellent music, excellent food, excellent beer) and that The Keralam Restaurant does wonderful Southern Indian food. Both these places were recommended to us by very friendly and helpful local people.