Safety audits, our petition and two-way cycling in Corn Exchange Street

Safety audits are secret no more! The secret and unaccountable procedures by which local authority transport engineers in their role as safety auditors assess the safety of new local road schemes are now out in the open and available for democratic scrutiny and discussion. The latest safety audit carried out on 2 December 2004 on the controversial plans for two-way cycling in Corn Exchange Street can, unlike previous audits, be read and assessed by anyone interested. It has just been published in full on the County Council’s website (within the section of their site on Agendas and Minutes for the Area Joint committee), probably largely as a result of the Freedom of Information Act which has just come into operation.

The audit makes depressing reading. The safety auditors’ assessment is that two-way cycling in Corn Exchange Street would be unsafe and should not be permitted, a conclusion which we do not accept. For the first time, however, we can see clearly what the arguments are and can evaluate them and challenge them which we will do at the meeting of the Environment and Transport Area Joint Committee meeting on 17 January. To obtain speaking rights at this meeting we had to obtain the support of fifty Cambridge residents for our petition ‘We, the signatories of this petition, ask the Cambridge Environment and Transport Area Joint Committee to insist that two-way cycling be permitted in Corn Exchange Street’. We circulated members of the Campaign by email and received a quite remarkable response. 174 Cambridge residents and many more people from outside Cambridge emailed back in support. Thanks to all who supported us. With this welcome backing we will be able to put our case.

In Newsletter 57 (December 2004 – January 2005, article 5) we wrote about our long struggle to obtain a cycle contraflow in Corn Exchange Street. Two-way cycling in this street is essential to provide effective access to the 500-space cycle park to be built as part of the Grand Arcade development. It is also needed to provide a necessary route for cycling to Regent Street and beyond from the Guildhall and Market Square area of the city.

Despite the negative safety audit, the Senior Engineer now responsible for the road design of Corn Exchange Street, gives qualified support for two-way cycling in her report for the 17 January meeting (also published on the County Council’s website). We greatly welcome her efforts to amend the design to make it safer and more acceptable. At the meeting we will be making suggestions for additional amendments to improve the design and have already circulated to the County and City Councillor members of the Committee a written version of many of the points that we will be putting before them.

But there is a sting in the tail of the report. The Officer’s report focuses on the place where the proposed contraflow would cross in front of the car exits beneath the Crowne Plaza Hotel where vehicles would emerge into Corn Exchange Street from the new Grand Arcade car park as the location where cyclists would be at greatest risk. She writes: ‘Quantifying the degree of risk to cyclists is very difficult and a resolution of this issue is fundamental to the success of this project. Given the risk of litigation that exists if cyclists are involved in accidents at the car park exits, it is considered appropriate for both authorities [the City and County Councils] to balance the risk against the benefits.’ We do not accept this approach. The two councils have delegated decision-making powers to their Environment and Transport Area Joint Committee and members of this committee should take the decision as they normally do for Cambridge road designs. They have much more knowledge of road design safety issues and of the details of this particular scheme than any other council decision-making bodies to which the issue might be referred.

We consider that both the car exits and the proposed arrangements for taking contraflow cyclists past the car exits have been much improved from earlier designs. There is to be a raised table at this location designed to slow down cyclists as well as motorists. (We know that this will be controversial with some cyclists!) We believe that the safety auditors’ suggestion (paragraph A.1.9e) of cyclists going past the car exits at 20 to 25 mph is implausible if the raised table is appropriately designed and installed.

At present, plenty of cyclists cycle every day across the car exits, as they are legally entitled to do if they have walked their bicycles along the footway beneath the car park. Yet the safety auditors record no injury accidents involving cyclists either at the unimproved car exits or anywhere else in Corn Exchange Street. Although there undoubtedly will be some risk to cyclists, especially the inexperienced, incompetent or careless, even after the car exits have been improved as planned, we consider that the risks are small and comparable to the risks run by cyclists elsewhere in the narrow, congested streets of central Cambridge in which motorists, pedestrians and cyclists in general interact successfully. Fears of compensation claims and possible costs of litigation must not be allowed to block this or other sensible cycle schemes.

In our view the key to success for the entire Corn Exchange Street and Wheeler Street area is to change the ambiance by good design from one in which vehicles dominate and have priority to one in which motor vehicles, cycles and pedestrians interact on more equal terms. For this to be achieved, general speed reduction and control of rogue motorists and cyclists are essential elements.

The argument (in Appendix A of Susan Mills’ report) that a 20 mph speed limit is unnecessary because most vehicles in Corn Exchange Street are already travelling below 20 mph is not acceptable. Rules are needed to restrict the minority of drivers who would seek to drive at around the legal limit of 30 mph even when a contraflow is in place.

At present, 20 mph limits exist in Silver Street, Emmanuel Road and Bridge Street but not in the city centre. We favour the imposition of a camera-enforced 20 mph limit either everywhere within the ring road or in a narrower city-centre zone which would be designed to include Corn Exchange Street.

James Woodburn

STOP PRESS

With the backing of our petition, I put our case to the meeting of the Cambridge Environment and Transport Area Joint Committee on 17 January. There was a lively debate with many local councillors putting forward views similar to ours and some others, influenced by the latest safety audit, expressing particular anxieties about the safety of contraflow cyclists at the car park exits. In the end the Committee took the decision to follow the advice of County Council officers to:

  1. note the safety audit report on the preliminary scheme design;
  2. support the scheme amendments and comments made in response to the safety audit; and
  3. ask the County Council and City Council to determine whether they wish to support the detailed scheme design with regard to the area in the vicinity of the car park exit.

The issue will now be considered by the County Council’s Cabinet at their meeting on 1st March.

James Woodburn