This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 97.
Cambridge City Council is cutting back its full-time cycling officer provision to half a post, on the grounds that cycling issues should be the responsibility of everyone in a team, thereby not requiring dedicated staff. Currently the position is one post, filled by two part-time officers.
We believe it is essential that local authorities have dedicated cycling officers. Whilst in an ideal world, every person working in a local council would have full understanding of and willingness to deal with cycling issues, the UK is some way away from that in practice, even in a cycling city like Cambridge. Dedicated staff act as an internal watchdog and are able to devote time to cycling issues.
We met with Councillor Tim Ward (who has responsibility for cycling issues) and a senior official to discuss this reorganisation and explain our fears that, realistically, this would lead to less effective decision-making concerning cycling by the city council.
Cutbacks or just reorganisation?
We were assured that the change is not being made to save funds. However, the same volume of demand for cycling improvements will remain, so there is, in our view, no obvious logical benefit to having non-dedicated staff doing it.
What benefits has the cycling officer position provided?
Below we outline the benefits (as we see them) that the cycling officer position brings to the city council and how it pays for itself.
1. Internal scrutiny of planning decisions
New developments affect travel patterns for decades. It is essential that these developments are fully scrutinised. Checking for cycling issues is as important as other issues like safety, layout, affordable housing, drainage, lighting etc. A major road without proper crossing facilities, or lack of cycle parking, will mean people use their cars instead, however much ‘promotion of sustainable transport’ is done.
Large planning applications often consist of thousands of pages of documentation, with large numbers of maps, tables and figures. For example, the first Northstowe planning application was an enormous box with at least twenty thick volumes of documentation. Analysing these is a job for dedicated professionals, paid to spend time spotting flaws that will cause future problems.
Volunteers with day jobs simply do not have the time to wade carefully through the volume of material, though in our case we find some time to cover a small fraction of the applications.
There are seemingly already too few resources within the council to scrutinise everything properly. Time after time, planning applications have gone through without problems being spotted. The result is that hostile cycling conditions are created, putting people off cycling.
Planning is a district matter. It is important that planning and transport issues are considered together.
The Arbury Park development in South Cambs provides a good example of the need for cycling officers to scrutinise plans in conjunction with planners. King’s Hedges Road was made massively less safe for cycling, and it is more difficult to cross than before. The result has been a drop in cycling levels, and a cutting off of the development from the rest of the city. These problems should have been spotted in the planning system many years ago. Some remediation work, costing the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds, has been done, but the road continues to be very hostile.
Time after time we have attended stakeholder meetings where the cycling officer present has spotted problems in developments that we would never have had time to spot. Each problem avoided has meant people not put off from cycling, and a saving of taxpayer money on remediation works in the future.
2. Promoting responsible cycling
There is a clear need in the city for a crack-down on irresponsible cycling and driving. The media often carries complaints from the public about the need for much more work in this area, both in terms of enforcement but also through softer measures. The issue also continually arises at area committees and other meetings.
The Cycling and Walking Officers, to give them their full title, have done much work to promote, in a variety of ways, responsible cycling. For instance:
- an excellent bookmark which is given out to the thousands of language school students each year, explaining key UK traffic laws (e.g. stop at red, and shared-use pavement rules) in simple terms
- creation of the Cambridge cycling map
- events running MOT-style checks for bikes, improving their roadworthiness
- contributing to promotion of the Adult Cycle Training scheme, which reduces irresponsible cycling and creates safer, more aware, cyclists
- attendance at the freshers’ fairs, to give out information to students unfamiliar with cycling issues in the city
- working to promote responsible use of the shared-space area in the city centre
and much more.
It is unlikely in our view that officers not charged with direct cycling responsibilities would deal with these and other issues with sufficient dedication, and ensure that the more difficult to balance enforcement issues involved are dealt with sensitively.
We were told in our meeting with Councillor Ward that the council intends to move towards a ‘Big Society’ style of work to improve these policing issues. We pointed out that as we are an overstretched voluntary body with no statutory powers, this is doomed to failure, particularly at a time when the police are also making cutbacks. We have already taken part in various activities to deal with these issues, but it needs statutory bodies – the council and police – to take action and devote time to them.
3. Working on streetscape improvements
The city council’s environmental improvements programme has resulted in a number of enhancements to the public realm. This programme includes schemes like the current Riverside improvements that aim to enhance the environment for those cycling and walking.
As well as ensuring that these schemes properly cater for cycling, there has also been the need to balance the desires of other parts of the city council whose priorities do not include catering for cyclists.
For instance, very modest proposals to slightly widen key paths across the commons used heavily by cyclists and walkers, seem to have been opposed by open spaces team members elsewhere in the council. In a city where these areas form such an important part of the cycle network, the need for an internal watchdog to make the case for allowing easier cycling here is strong, even if this means the loss of one metre’s width of grass.
An example has been New Bit, which seems to have taken a lot of officer time, both in the city and county councils. The case for improving cycling, backed officially by the city council, seems to have been subject to concerns by some officers within the city council about widening of the paths. In fact, work on recreational paths elsewhere has shown that widening a path can reduce damage to adjacent habitat. Once people trample adjacent grass to mud, others spread this even wider causing yet more damage.
In other local authorities (e.g. Edinburgh) there seems a more positive attitude to improving condition for cycling across open spaces. They recognise the huge benefit to both society (health, well-being and independence) and budgets (reduced congestion and lower pollution) of actively encouraging modal shifts away from motor vehicles.
We feel it is important that dedicated cycling officers exist, to make the case for improved cycling conditions when other streetscape and open spaces schemes are being developed and implemented.
4. Increasing levels of cycle parking around the city
Cambridge City Council has a major problem with cycle theft. It is continually being set as a priority at the area committee meetings. Every bicycle stolen is potentially one person who will not cycle for many years. A big part of the problem is the lack of secure cycle parking stands all around Cambridge (not just in the city centre, where the problem is most acute). Residential areas (e.g. Romsey and Petersfield) have virtually no cycle parking, with the result that bicycles are left blocking pavements and vulnerable to theft.
The city and county councils have started in recent years to address this extreme shortage of cycle parking. But doing so has been fraught with difficulties, with some car owners objecting to the loss of single parking spaces and objections from other groups to various proposals that, following implementation, have not proved problematic in practice.
The city council cycling officers have worked extremely hard to bring proposals for new cycle parking to fruition. Each location has required officer time to liaise with the public and with city councillors to make the case and help work up the plans. Despite this, there are hundreds of locations that are still in need of cycle parking. The Cycling Sorted website provides this evidence. And these deal only with actual requests for cycle parking. Why have new food shops opened without any cycle parking whatsoever (Sainsbury’s on Regent Street, and M&S at the Beehive Centre) – and where is the proactive work to address this?
We think it highly likely that scrapping the full-time equivalent cycling officer position will lead to a marked slowdown in the recent progress on the cycle parking issue (unless the county council takes up the slack). The result will be continued high levels of theft, blocked pavements and the general inconvenience of being unable to find a cycle parking space.
Cambridge City Council will not truly be able to describe the city as a ‘cycling city’ if not even a single full-time dedicated cycling officer post exists.
There is a huge amount more to be done, as the descriptions above outline. The council should be increasing, not decreasing, its resources dedicated to the most efficient and environmentally-friendly form of transport in the city.
In our view, the best way to do this is to have dedicated staff with sufficient time to enable the large amount of work to be undertaken effectively. Half a member of staff does not fulfil that requirement.