A voice from acronym land

This article was published in 2003, in Newsletter 48.

Campaign officer Jim Chisholm interviewed Robert Marshall, a civil servant with regional responsibility for cycling issues.

JC: What is the exact title of your job?

RM: I’m called ‘Cycling Development Coordinator – East’ for the English Regions Cycling Development Team (ERCDT).

JC: When did you start?

RM: I started the post in October 2002, after working for 15 years as an officer in the Planning and Transportation Department of Norfolk County Council. I had a range of transportation planning jobs including Cycling Officer, Traffic Calming Engineer and Senior Engineer Traffic Strategies. I’m a chartered town planner, even though most of my career has been as an ‘engineer’ in local authorities. It’s been to my advantage since I don’t tend to think in the engineer’s way or seek comfort in standards and rules and regulations! You tend to question ‘Why?’ a lot more rather than accept what’s been done (all too often, badly) in the past.

JC: I gather the main part of your job is to vet cycling-related sections of Local Transport Plans, and to ensure that actions contained are actually done. Is that a fair view?

RM: That’s just part of my regional responsibilities, though it’s been my main task since starting. I have to carry out preliminary assessments of all the Eastern Region Highway Authorities’ Local Transport Plans and their subsequent Annual Progress Reports. There are ten such authorities in this region, so it’s a huge task. We don’t just do the cycling chapters – we have to look at all aspects of each LTP to see how far cycling is taken seriously and dealt with appropriately at a policy level. I have just completed them all, meeting our team target of getting all of England’s Highway Authorities assessed by the end of March 2003. The results are being submitted to the Department for Transport (DfT) and to the Regional Offices.

We move on to doing some formal facilities audit work during April and May looking at local authority ‘flagship’ schemes (or what they think are their best projects). We will also be looking at a wide range of other ‘cycle schemes’ as well as new development, local safety schemes, station access and parking, amongst others. We have a rigorous audit pro-forma that should give some consistency of review. This will add more weight to the preliminary assessments and contribute to best practice and worst practice reports.

JC: Have you been given any teeth?

RM: Well, it’s early days yet. We have a ‘hot line’ to the National Cycling Strategy Board and our top boss – Steven Norris and all the other highly placed individuals on the Board who are ‘looking out’ for cycling and for cyclists’ interests. Our assessment work is also used by the Government Office for each region. GOEast, the government office for the Eastern Region, have control of the finances, and it is on their say that our local authorities get a share of the transport funding grant. Local authorities are very sensitive about being marked down and about any risk to their funding settlement. ERCDT has only just started feeding into the process so we shall see what happens. I also refer specific issues to the DfT and to GOEast if I feel that they should be made aware of them – for example, the issue on Hills Road I copied to GOEast so that they are aware of the kind of stuff that concerns local cyclists. I like to think that this will influence the funding decisions made at the regional level.

JC: How big a part of your job is it to consider issues raised by local cycling activists?

RM: I do take up local issues, but I can’t get involved in too many or I just wouldn’t have time for my main responsibilities. I have a strategic remit for the whole of the Eastern Region; this is a big patch: Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. I have to limit my involvement in specific local issues, both in number and extent. It is important though to highlight a number of issues and concerns from each county or main urban area since these are the real local issues – the nitty gritty of what actually happens out there on our streets. The cycling campaigners are always welcome to make me aware of specific issues and I will do my best to investigate some of them.

JC: Although much of your work is clearly with local councils, we in Cambridge are concerned that the police authorities do not appear to take law enforcement regarding motorists seriously enough. Is this an issue that has been raised more widely?

‘We have a “hot line” to the National Cycling Strategy Board’

RM: Yes, enforcement is an important issue but the reality is that it is not a priority with our hard-pressed local constabularies. Part of my longer term role is to work with a wider range of ‘stakeholders’ – the police, health and education authorities are just a few of them. Again, this is at a more strategic level but we should be able to get the cycling issues and concerns in at a relatively high level within these organisations.

JC: In Cambridge quite a lot of children regularly cycle to school, but there are concerns that many schools will not allow children to cycle until they have taken their Cycle Proficiency Test at ten years old. Can we start them earlier?

RM: The ERCDT priority is to tackle child training. Recent survey work has revealed that fewer than 4% of school children get professional, on-road training. The rest, some 30% of kids, get a mixture of ‘training’ that is just not good enough or appropriate. A ‘quick win’ would be to get this appalling child bike training record put right. Ideally, all children should be professionally trained on a road environment – and importantly, this must be done at least a year earlier than most local authorities do it. Funding will be crucial, of course. ERCDT will be making very strong early recommendations to the DfT about what should be done. Part of the ‘school run’ problem is about the restrictions that too many schools themselves apply, making it more difficult for their pupils to bike to school. Many schools have taken the bike sheds out, or don’t allow cycling to school until children have completed cycle training. A year of cycling to school is lost by not providing training early enough. Once they get to secondary school the cycling culture is lost and it’s unlikely that they will cycle as adults.

JC: In Cambridge we’ve had an Adult Cycling Training scheme for a number of years, but it is neither well funded nor well publicised. Are such schemes likely to receive better funding in the future?

RM: Our training survey also shows that only 25 adults per million of population get any adult cycle training! It is under-resourced of course, but I am aware that there is a limited take-up by the public for adult cycle training when it’s been offered in the past in other areas. Maybe it’s not well marketed or is dependent on the local level of cycling. I’m also aware that many campaign groups do good, voluntary work in training adults. There might be future opportunities through funding initiatives like the current Cycle Challenge Fund. We shall have to put adult training on the ‘back-burner’ until we get the kids some cycle training justice – that’s our clear priority.

JC: I gather you’ve spent a little time in Cambridgeshire. What was the best and the worst you saw?

‘Part of the “school run” problem is about the restrictions that too many schools themselves apply, making it more difficult for their pupils to bike to school’

RM: The best ‘cycling schemes’ in my view are simple ‘point’ or road closures. They are arguably even better if they allow buses through, as is starting to happen in parts of Cambridge city centre with the use of rising bollards. They are relatively cost-effective, reduce traffic at a stroke, and you (usually, unless the block-work fanatics have had their way!) get a decent surface and a direct route at the same time. Of course it’s a battle with the politicians and the shopkeepers who think that sustainable transport conflicts with economic development and regeneration objectives; but once done, everybody soon gets used to the closures. If you’d listened to them in the past Cambridge would have not got any of the restricted traffic areas that are now accepted and working well to create the central environment that is Cambridge today. Otherwise, cycling should generally take place on the roads in an environment where vehicle speeds are reduced, road space reallocated more equitably and real priority, not token if it doesn’t affect vehicle capacity too much, is given to vulnerable road users.

‘Bad schemes’ – the link you highlighted in a previous newsletter as part of new development, off the new Jubilee Cycle Route, is riddled with ‘bad practice.’ It’s symptomatic of there not being a proper cycle audit being undertaken and that the people who design these facilities don’t actually cycle – I suspect.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign has invited Robert Marshall as speaker for July’s open meeting.