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Wales – Setting the Stage for a New Act

Wales has the opportunity to develop the infrastructure needed to increase levels of walking and cycling with its new ‘Active Travel Act’. Whether the Act proves to be an effective tool for change or turns out to a damp squib will in part depend on how well we organize to take advantage of it.

It is one of the ironies of devolution that the nations with devolved powers have so far been more British even than England in road design. It is devolved London that is now posing the first serious challenge to the status quo with proposals on the agenda for east-west and north-south cycleways. But with its Active Travel Act (Wales) 2013, Wales could possibly make real progress.

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Millions wasted on bendy-bus vanity project in Swansea

The Welsh Assembly Government (WAG), strapped for resources, has chosen to legislate in a way that it is hoped will nudge local authorities into undertaking the changes they have so ignored. The problems look overwhelming.

Up and down the land cycling and walking are treated by local authorities with contempt. The bustling south Wales coastal city, Swansea, spent many millions and many years re-vamping its city centre to cater for bendy-buses and taxis – but overlooked installing bus priority signals – so buses sit for ages at traffic lights that give priority to motors. Cyclists didn’t get a look in.

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Total absence of cycling infrastructure in major redevelopment in Swansea

True a natty little cycle path was added next to the pedestrian crossing outside county hall – but it leads you on a nasty main road and into the realm of the anti-cycling city centre-wide bus & taxi track-way.
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Token cycle crossing that goes nowhere in Swansea

Or take Porthmadog on the northwestern coast of Wales. Here an opportunity arose to re-surface the tarmac in the town centre. What did the council do? It created a new concept in road engineering – what we might call a maxi-mini-roundabout with acres of tarmac for motors and a tiny central island. Pedestrians were corralled on narrow pavements behind railings (necessary given the way the roundabout encourages speeding through the town centre). Cyclists didn’t get a look in.

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‘Maxi-min-roundabout’ with narrow pavements in Porthmadog – all it needs is a sign saying: “cyclists – don’t come here on holiday we have no space for you”

A town which depends entirely on tourism for economic sustenance might have seen the sense of making something out of its town centre. Regrettably the council could only stretch its mental apparatus to conceiving of tons of tarmac.

This is the sort of official and political lethargy that the Active Travel Act will come up against in Welsh local authorities [LAs].

There are two stages to the Act’s requirements. First, LAs must draw up a map of all existing cycle and pedestrian routes and assess them to a specified standard for safety and attractiveness to users. This is due by September 2015. Second, a map showing how the routes will be brought up to standard is due to be completed by September 2017. Roger Geffen of the CTC described the Act as a ‘policy breakthrough’. He said that the design guide sets high standards and the audit tool will give lobbying organizations the opportunity to check the assessments of the LAs and lobby in a more informed way for improvements.

The Act requires LAs, when creating, maintaining & improving highways to take reasonable steps to enhance the provision made for walkers & cyclists. As well as the maps of existing provision and proposed future enhancements, LAs must also make enhancements for ‘active travel’ in all new road schemes.

Enhancements must have regard to statutory Delivery Guidance & Design Guidance. Based on 5 criteria: coherence, directness, safety, comfort & attractiveness, the guidelines also encourage innovation where existing practice is not suitable for cycling &/or walking. There is also an emphasis on inclusive design for all ages and ‘abilities’.

The acts means that LAs “must have regard to the needs of walkers and cyclists in setting priorities and making decisions about how to secure the expeditious movement of traffic”.

“Be prepared to challenge blatant disregard of the guidance”, said Roger Geffen. There remains a number of ‘get outs’, such as where it is considered not possible to provide safe provision.

Richard Keatinge, of Beicio Bangor cycling lobbying group, said the Welsh design guidance means that roundabouts should be made slow and tight so that cyclists can safely share a single lane or provide separate tracks around the outside, preferably with priority”. The Perme St roundabout in Cambridge shows that “we need separate tracks. We should say so.”

Unfortunately, the WAG is not providing any funds and all Welsh LAs are under considerable financial pressure to fund the most expensive of the core areas of local provision – education and social services. Transport is likely to become a candidate for ever greater cuts and LAs are likely to continue to prefer motorways to cycleways and pavements within the diminished budgets. LAs never have trouble devising excuses for disregarding cycling and walking as transport modes. And Welsh councils are as effective as this as any in England, especially as quite a few are ‘one party states’, all but impervious to public pressure.
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Colwyn Bay cycle track – the cycle track designer fell asleep at his drawing board pen in hand, but no one noticed and actually built this!

However, the Act is about politics and gives local organizations a tool with which to step up their campaigning, as Roger Geffen explained. The whole process of drawing up the maps will be repeated three years after the first cycle has been completed, giving cycling and walking organizations the chance to lobby councils again once the weaknesses in the process have been identified.
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Colwyn Bay – a good indication of how LAs have no idea of the concept of high-quality cycle infrastructure

Roger also pointed out that it would be possible to raise a legal challenge in the form of a judicial review if a LA was clearly defying the spirit and the letter of the Act. There is no other formal means of challenge and this could only be done in a case where a successful challenge was likely, but he suggests that the wording of the Act is strong enough to make this a possibility in the future.

Roger was speaking at a Campaigners’ Training Day, organized jointly by CTC, Road Justice and space4cycling in Llandudno in north Wales.

Speaking to another workshop, Richard Keatinge, reported on some developments in the city of Bangor in northwest Wales. A major local bus provider recently went bankrupt, partly as a result of cuts in public bus subsidies. This has sparked off a row as the council will no longer fund a bus service that took children about 2 miles to school from one side of the city to the other. They have been told that they will have to walk.

Now a proposal has come forward for a cycle route to be developed running through the city centre that, if implemented to a high standard, could allow the children to cycle to school and back home.

In the present financial situation the council may decide it doesn’t want to spend money on cycle routes. But it may come to its senses and understand that it can do away with the on-going bus subsidy for a one-off development cost and at the same time help increase children’s activity levels and health and well being as well as improving the city’s image. Hopefully the atmosphere created by the Active Travel Act will help push the council towards adopting the proposals.
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Fishguard – ultra short distance cycle track (with bench) – what were the designers thinking? 

It is too early to say what effect the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 will have. It may well not make much difference – or it may help create an atmosphere where cycling and walking begin to be taken seriously in Wales. If so that would be a justification for devolution. Just carrying on as before would make one wonder why was devolution necessary if the politicians have no idea of how to change things for the better once they’ve got the powers they’ve been asking for. This is a test of the politicians of Wales as much as a tool for improving conditions for people walking and cycling.

I am not a member of the CTC and haven’t been since the early-1980s, having then discovered that it didn’t represent my interests in urban cycling conditions or have sympathy with my preference even then for dedicated cycle networks. However, I must say that I found this recent meeting very refreshing. Yes, there were some traditionalists, but the greater majority of those present took for granted that space4cycling meant giving a central role for dedicated/segregated cycle facilities and this was also how Roger Geffen and his CTC colleague, Robbie Gillett, presented it.

The atmosphere was completely different from many meetings of LCC and other cycling groups that I recall from the late 1990s and early 2000s, where opposition to segregated solutions was emphatically and patronizingly expressed.

I came away from this recent training day with the impression that CTC supports the case for high quality cycle infrastructure. Whatever happened in the past is gone and having the CTC on side, arguing for high quality infrastructure, is an enormous advantage to the progressive UK cycling lobby. The CTC has the experience and resources to give serious backing to our campaign to put high quality infrastructure on the political agenda (in all the constituent nations of Britain) and I for one welcome this development.

One final point, my first act of cycle activism was in the late 1970s or early 1980s when Cardiff city council opened the first stage of what eventually became Lon Las Cymru, the national north-south cycle route. The first stage usefully went from near my then home in central Cardiff to Coryton where I worked on the northern limits of the city. On the day it opened I rang up the council cycling officer to say thank you very much for the route. I also asked if it was possible for the track near the centre of the city to be swept clean of the considerable number of shards of glass that littered its surface. The officer exploded in anger, shouting at me, ‘What, you want us to SWEEP it for you as well.’ The conversation rapidly ended, but in the years since then I have, now and again, been involved in campaigning for better provision of cycle facilities, spurred on in part by memory of that unwelcoming response.

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