Edinburgh CycleNation Conference 2010



The brilliant Rodney St Tunnel, now an important link on National Cycle Route 75 heading north from Edinburgh city centre. This 19th-century tunnel became a redundant rail link when the Forth Bridge opened in 1890.
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Jim Chisholm, Martin Lucas-Smith and I took the train to this event, which is part of the series of conferences held every six months by CTC and CycleNation (the federation of UK cycle campaigns).

Cycling from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, through the rain on unfamiliar, hilly and poorly maintained streets, we saw out Friday night at The Bike Station. This is a very lively community centre cum bike workshop/café. It’s a big warehouse-style room with bikes, tyres and inner tubes hanging from scaffolding – which is being used here for storage. The station services bikes, or allows you to use their facilities to fix your own machines.

On Saturday the venue was a big city church now converted into the four-storey Eric Liddell Centre (he of Chariots of Fire fame).

The conference was opened by Councillor Gordon Mackenzie from Edinburgh City Council, who has a transport and environmental brief. I got the feeling that he had done some good things but, judging by the reaction from the audience, not enough. The main joke was that the city had signed up to the Brussels charter of 15% of journeys to work by bike by 2020, but that funding for cycling was barely 1% and set to be swallowed up by the city’s failing tram project.

Transport for London had plenty to talk about – their cycling superhighways and the success of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme (affectionately known as the Boris Bikes) had kept them extremely busy. Importantly for their acceptance, these schemes have had a neutral effect on the journey times of buses. The hire bikes currently need to be pre-registered, but that will be relaxed by ‘the end of the year’. The hire scheme will be extended to the Olympic area by 2012. Questions from the audience challenged the quality of the ‘superhighways’, and queried why the hire bikes are not suitable for people less than about 5’3″ tall.

National Cycle Route 75 follows the towpath alongside the Water of Leith almost at its end on the coast by the docks.
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Philip Darnton shocked us all with his story about the demise of Cycling England. He explained that the quango had only four staff, no office and cost only £200,000 annually to run – managing a portfolio of £140 million of cycling investment. Despite all the strong and clear arguments about how efficiently they’d handled public money and how many people had been converted to cycling, none of that logic mattered amidst the fervour of a new government wanting to be seen making decisive changes. He’d recently been told by ministers that ‘if we don’t close you down we’ll end up like Greece’ – bankrupt and with rioting on the streets. That was how much his portfolio, less than a quarter of 1% of the annual transport budget, mattered.

It was left to CTC’s campaign manager Roger Geffen to draw the mixed messages of these opening threads together into some kind of goal for the conference. South of the border we’ve got to work out how to get the most out of the Coalition Government’s new Sustainable Development Fund.

After lunch I attended a stimulating workshop session on the issue of segregation. This boiled down to whether enthusiasm for, or hostility to, segregated paths should change if the law governing right of way at side roads changes. (See rule 170 of the Highway Code.) Sadly this lively debate ran out of time when we all had to move on to the next set of workshop sessions.

The feeling of the closing session was that cycling faced an uncertain short-term future. Some wrong decisions would be made about where to spend money on transport. But there was a definite sense that more and stronger investment in cycling lies just around the corner, and that we’ve got to be working now to steer government towards making those right decisions.

The Bike Station – a bike shop-cum-community centre
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Edinburgh Spokes put on an excellent Ceilidh that night and we had a choice of three cycle tours of the city the next day. Clicking through to edinburgh.cyclestreets.net/photos/all/will give you a taste of what we found. We extend our warm thanks to them for hosting such a lively and well attended conference, and to the folks at CycleNation and CTC who put so much effort into goading speakers to attend and getting the event to run smoothly.

Simon Nuttall

Another place, another problem?

Jim Chisholm adds…

I’ve just spent a long weekend in Edinburgh, and as well as attending the CycleNation conference I had a chance to explore this splendid city and even read some of the local press.

So apart from being far from flat and somewhat larger, what has Edinburgh in common with Cambridge?

Edinburgh has lots of lovely buildings, big green open spaces with cycle paths (although they are well lit), plenty of visitors speaking a multitude of languages, and a public transport project, late of delivery, over budget, and mired in controversy.

Edinburgh’s tram, at five times the cost of our Busway, and rising, is mired in contractor and financial difficulty.
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The Guided Bus seems small fry compared with the Edinburgh Tram:

  • The chairman of Edinburgh’s beleaguered trams project, David Mackay, has resigned with immediate effect.
  • The project is behind schedule and over budget after a legal dispute between the company in charge of building the tram line and its main contractors.
  • Tram bosses are due to give the council a finance report by mid-September.
  • It emerged on Friday that Edinburgh City Council is drawing up plans to borrow another £55 m to help fund the scheme.
  • It is also considering replacing current contractor Bilfinger Berger.
  • Independent MSP Margo Macdonald said she believed it could be time to call a halt to the project amid reports its £545m budget will be exceeded.

One of the differences is that numbers of cyclists have had crashes after skidding on the rails, whereas our Guided Bus project should provide significant benefits for cyclists through the parallel cycle path. Also, given the latest reports issued by the County Council, we may even have the southern section operating long before the first tram runs in Edinburgh.