Chris Howell

National Highways – On the road to supporting cycling – but a long way to go

For those looking to improve cycle networks, new roads are both an opportunity and a threat.

There is an opportunity for all new major road schemes (and rail for that matter) to include high quality, interconnected and segregated cycle routes along the line of the new infrastructure, and use these projects to help create new cycle route crossings of rivers, railways etc alongside the new road.

But there is also a threat that when a new road crosses existing cycling or walking routes, these may become blocked or re-routed, extending existing journey times, unless safe and convenient new crossings are created.

So Conservative Friends of Cycling were keen to invite National Highways (Formerly Highways England, and before that the Highways Agency – responsible for major roads) – to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking, to discuss how they are meeting the challenge of the Government’s ambitious plans for increasing levels of Cycling and Walking. On 8th November 2021, the All Party Group met with Freda Rashdi – National Highways Head of Customer Journeys.

Our President, Andrew Selous MP had three questions:

1 What are National Highways doing to make sure all new road schemes comply with the high standards of LTN 1/20 (the Government’s great new technical guidance for cycle infrastructure) – including physically segregated routes, interconnected with other cycle routes without gaps in provision, barriers, chicanes or dismount signs.

2 What are National Highways doing to make sure that funding to meet the aspirations of Gear Change, the Government’s new policies to increase cycling, is integral to the schemes and not just a ‘nice to have’ add-on to pay lip service to sustainable transport.

3. Do National Highways have enough experienced staff who are cyclists themselves and who understand the requirements of the new policy and guidance (such that ‘cycle routes should only be designed by those with experience on a cycle’ as Gear Change suggests).

Cllr Martyn Bolt, committee member of the Conservative Friends of Cycling, also raised the important current topic of National Highways approach to old railway infrastructure that crosses roads – where structural issues are being addressed by infilling with concrete, destroying the option to use old rail routes for cycling and walking.

Freda responded that National Highways have been changing to support active travel.

The funding tranche for 2020-2025 (Road Investment Strategy 2 – RIS2) totalling £27.4m includes new ‘designated funds’ of £936m to support cycling and walking projects around schemes, to be spent in conjunction with local authorities. National Highways confirmed that bids were currently nowhere near reaching the limit of designated funds so funding ‘shouldn’t be a limiting factor on cycling projects’.

Whilst LTN 1/20 applies to Local Authorities, the relevant guidelines applicable to cycling around National Highways schemes (GG 142, CD 143, CD 195) have been updated to move closer to the aspirations of LTN 1/20, although support for cycling infrastructure was still caveated with phrases like being ‘where possible’, and segregation wasn’t part of standards, but it is now ‘an option’.

In terms of the experience of engineers of designing for cycling, there is a team dedicated to active travel, and many National Highways employees were keen cyclists. Whilst internal guidance has been provided to the new standards, it was indicated that training sessions for the new standards haven’t happened for everyone yet.

On the issue of National Highways approach to maintaining old railway infrastructure – there was an interesting revelation – the approach for each structure should be considered independently on its merits as to how to deal with any structural issues, including the impact on cycling and walking.

Finally, National Highways pointed out that guidance had changed relatively recently in the context of a major road scheme timescale, and newer schemes should be better. Some examples were the A6-M1 link road that will have a cycle route adjacent (unlike the earlier A5-M1 link), and the Keswick trail next to the A66.

Questions to the meeting, many from activists with local experience of National Highways schemes, did however raise a number of concerns, and suggests there remains a gap between the aspirations, and what is actually happening on the ground.

Conservative Friends of Cycling Co-Chair Chris Howell raised concerns that the ‘designated funds’ are potentially contentious with competing claims, and argued provision for cycling should be part of the core scheme and its funding, not a bolt on extra. 

APPGCW co-Chair Ruth Cadbury MP enquired if National Highways is incentivised to follow new cycle standards in the same way as local authorities are (where there is a threat that funding for schemes will be cut if the standards for active travel aren’t followed) – something of particular concern given the ‘where possible’ caveats given to reassurances.

Examples were raised of very poor provision for cycling and walking in current schemes e.g. new cycle routes with unsafe road crossings, with suggestions that perhaps not all those involved in designing schemes on the ground share our enthusiasm for safe, segregated cycle routes, or even accept that the updated standards really do apply to their schemes.

Overall, although National Highways is moving in the right direction on active travel, it feels like progress is slow, not normalised within the organisation, and not yet fully matching the governments aspirations for modal shift to cycle and walking.

We would like to see cycling becoming a core part of all new road and rail schemes and to include high quality, interconnected and segregated cycle routes along the line of the new infrastructure, and where existing routes are severed, safe and convenient crossings are created.

We would urge the All Party Group to continue to hold National Highways to account, and follow up as promised on concerns raised at the meeting, and for improved training on active travel for all those responsible for road design. 

Finally, on the issue of infilling old railway structures by National Highways – if options for each road crossing by an old railway should be treated on its merits, taking into account potential for cycling and walking when addressing structural issues, why does there appear to be a blanket approach adopted of concrete-infill and destruction of potential future trails?

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.

The Case for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

The government is strongly supportive of cycling and active travel and rightly so – LTNs (Low Traffic Neighbourhoods) are about persuading some people out of their cars and to make more of their shorter journeys, particular in cities, by other modes of transport (so called modal shift) – the traffic doesn’t stay the same and relocate, much of the traffic is able bodied people making short journeys that are much better done by other modes of transport, and the journeys just disappear as people make more sensible choices (https://thecityfix.com/blog/traffic-evaporation-what-really-happens-when-road-space-is-reallocated-from-cars/).

The sudden deep and profound interest of people in disability access problems or the adaptability of small businesses to change is doubtless a good thing, but in reality it is almost always a proxy for ‘Why can’t I drive everywhere I want to as quickly and conveniently as possible with access to almost all of the the highway to the near exclusion of most other road users’.

Why is the government supporting Low Traffic Neighbourhoods? They tackle multiple major public policy problems in a way that is low cost and electorally popular (apart from amongst tiny vocal minorities) so of course they are doing this. They are trying to deal with climate change – not taking 2 tonnes of metal with you when you pop down the shops for a pint of milk or packet of fags is always going to be the easiest of easy wins when there will be much harder more expensive choices coming along to deal with the ever more obvious threat of climate change. We have a public health crisis due to lack of physical activity – diabetes is costing the NHS 10% of its entire budget (https://www.diabetes.co.uk/cost-of-diabetes.html), and in many cases this is a lifestyle disease with inactive lifestyles and obesity the main cause. Commuting to work by bike dramatically reduces someones chance of dying prematurely in middle age (https://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j1456) – if the health benefits of regular cycling could be put into a pill taken daily, it would be the most valuable new pharmaceutical ever discovered. Car dominated highways are one of the main barriers to active travel.

Cars take almost all the space on urban roads – its ludicrous to talk of a war on cars (As Conservative Home does again today) when cars dominate everything almost everywhere – they cause pollution, many thousands of deaths and serious injuries, and a clear majority of people don’t want their neighbourhoods dominated by them. This is not a new idea – changes have been happening for decades in the Netherlands, and in many cases in the UK. There are always a few angry people at first, then acceptance, then no-one would think of suggesting we go back to how things were before. Opposition to lower traffic neighbourhoods by local Conservative campaigns based on vocal minorities is not just a missed opportunity given the great lead being shown by national government – it is also electorally toxic as ultimately the changes are beneficial to communities and therefore electorally popular.

Greenwich Conservatives Lead Calls for Extension of Santander Cycles to South East of London

Once lockdown ends, London’s public transport capacity will be five times less than before the pandemic, due to the challenges posed by creating socially distanced travel, according to TfL. For many of us, this means that our journeys will have to be made by other means.  

It was therefore welcome that the Director of Surface Transport at TfL, Gareth Powell, recently expressed his desire to expand the geographical footprint of Santander Cycles, in line with the introduction of new cycle lanes throughout the capital.  

Greenwich Conservatives have followed up with Mr. Powell, writing to him to request that any future expansion of Santander Cycle coverage includes finally opening the network to South East London.  

The TfL network outside of buses is currently severely limited in South East London with only one underground station. Even with a  proposed Bakerloo line extension to Lewisham, if funding were to be confirmed in 2021 this would not be delivered until the early 2030’s leaving the area underserviced by public transport and unlikely to be able to meet demand post lockdown. 

Prior to the pandemic it was already difficult to board a train at Deptford in rush hour, but it will be even more difficult with 50,000 new homes being built near the Old Kent Road, Greenwich Peninsula, Charlton Riverside and in Deptford itself.  

Therefore, whilst other means of transport are restricted, the barren coverage of Santander Cycles in South East London provides a great opportunity for growth. It could also be coincided with the current regeneration of the Old Kent Road and be up and running within the year.  

By extending Santander Cycles to South East London TfL could provide a healthier, more environmentally friendly and covid-safe alternative to current forms of public transport in South East London allowing more residents to travel post lockdown.  

Extending Santander Cycles to the South East – currently poorly served by other transport options would be a deliverable and good value for money way to improve transport capacity.