How pro-car extremists cheated a Cambridgeshire Consultation and Won

On 27th July 2021 Cambridgeshire County Council Highways and Transport Committee met to decide the fate of the experimental bus gate on Mill Road in Cambridge, that had been introduced in June 2020 as part of emergency active travel funding by the then Conservative controlled Council.

The scheme implementation was not a shining example of how to do things – initial consultations were poor and didn’t get local traders on board. The physical implementation was poor, with poor signage, ugly buildouts to allow social distancing, and no efforts at all to improve the appearance of the road or take advantage of the dramatic reductions in motor vehicles on the road to help traders benefit from the higher levels of cycling and walking. Local campaign group Camcycle begged the Council to improve the quality of the scheme, but these requests fell on deaf ears.

But the main purpose of the scheme – a modal filter approximately half way along the busy shopping street was successful and popular. Previously high volumes of traffic (14,000 vehicles a day) were using the minor road to short cut to the City Centre, with the street layout, as is so often the case, completely prioritising motor vehicles, creating a dangerous and unpleasant environment and leaving many cyclists too scared to use it. With the modal filter in place, the street became calmer, pleasant and safer, with many reports of residents now happier to cycle and walk along the road. Despite the challenges of Covid, 14 new businesses opened on the road after the modal filter was installed, showing the confidence of many traders in the new arrangements.

So it was deeply disappointing to see the committee vote to remove the filter – the road has already returned to being a noisy, polluted and dangerous traffic corridor, with the shops, cyclists and pedestrians again marginalised. The Council, now controlled by a Lib/Lab coalition saw Conservative members of the committee after heavy lobbying from some of the local traders and the local Conservative Association united with the Labour deputy chair of the committee who used her casting vote to reopen the road, with all the usual canards about displaced traffic, and the wild overstatement of how important through traffic stopping to park illegally outside shops is for business.

Mill Road Cambridge is now back to heavy traffic

So how could the Councillors justify such a decision given how popular the scheme was with local residents? The answer is that the Council carried out a deeply flawed consultation.

The committee were presented with survey results that in answer to the question ‘To what extent do you support/oppose the closure of Mill Road bridge to all traffic except buses, cycles and pedestrians?’ indicated:

Support/Strongly Support: 51.9%

Oppose/Strongly Oppose: 45.7%

No view either way: 2.4%

So clear support from residents to retain the filter. Except the report presented to committee indicated:

During the quality assurance process, undertaken as part of all our consultation analysis practices, 623 responses were flagged as potential duplicates. These were identified due to repeat use of logins, identical unique user numbers (generated for anonymous users from browser cookies), and blocks of strongly support/strongly oppose submissions within short time frames.

Following advice from the Consultation Institute, and no cases of duplicate ‘cut and paste’ answers in the open comment qualitative questions, a purely qualitative analysis was undertaken of the formal consultation questionnaire in order to understand the impacts of the ETRO on Mill Road.

In other words, the quantitative responses were included in an appendix without comment, with the clear implication that they should be ignored.

But what of these duplicate responses? The Council made no attempt to analyse what the impact of the identified duplicate responses was, so we obtained the data set and tried to repeat the analysis. It proved difficult to recreate their method and identify all 623 duplicate responses, but it was easy to spot where many many multiple anonymous responses had been made from the same web browser. For example, there were 173 responses from browser id’s with more than 10 responses each (ie almost certainly trying to cheat the consultation):

Anonymous User:2907544363
Anonymous User:2962741333
Anonymous User:3553806425
Anonymous User:3534385119
Anonymous User:1849899318
Anonymous User:3641904615
Grand Total173

And which way do we think the responses from these users went? We can exclusively reveal the results of analysing these 173 responses:

Support/Strongly Support: 14.6% (all showing as strongly support)

Oppose/Strongly Oppose: 85.4% (77.78% strongly oppose)

No view either way: 2.4%

So surprise surprise, those trying to rig the consultation were overwhelming from the pro-traffic extremists – and this analysis is strong evidence that the duplicate responses were attempts to manipulate the survey rather than, for example, a web browser in a community centre that would likely have a distribution of responses much closer to the overall distribution. Analysis of responses from browsers with 3-10 responses weren’t quite as skewed, but did also show results significantly opposed to the filter (compared to the net support in the whole data set), indicating that some but not all of these were also likely to be attempts to rig the consultation with multiple responses by the pro-traffic side.

So unforgivably the Council told Councillors to ignore the quantitative results of the consultation showing support for the scheme (effectively asking them to decide with no evidence at all of the scale of public support for the scheme) because pro-car activists had cheated the consultation, and simply removing the suspicious responses would have shown that there was in fact very strong support from residents for the filter.

Tragically this woeful decision was just 3 days before Transport Minister Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to Councils making it clear how unacceptable it was to remove schemes like this without good evidence (which is exactly what Cambridgeshire had just done), and making it clear consultations must be designed to be representative, and suspended funding for active travel schemes to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined authority. After further discussions and announcements from the new mayor, there is hope that this decision will in time be reversed, and a filter will be reinstated, but in the meantime, Councils and Councillors need to be aware that consultations that don’t take steps to avoid manipulation could well overstate opposition from a minority of very angry pro-car people cheating the surveys, at the expense of the majority who want to see quieter, safer and less polluted streets and who support simple measures to tackle climate change and public health like supporting active travel.