One last plea for cycling infrastructure

I gave my deputation at the Aberdeen council committee meeting today. I have spoken in council chambers before, several years ago when I presented my petition for a segregated cycle track on Union Street. It’s an interesting experience.

You’re not allowed to take photos so I’ll describe the room. It’s huge with mezzanine viewing galleries for the public and the press. There are two rows of curved tables and a large table at the very front and another big table in the middle. Every seat has a microphone. It has a 1980s vibe and reminds me of how UN meetings are sometimes depicted in movies. There’s a photo of it on the council website. In fact, the whole council meeting is online including my deputation which starts at around 1:22.

The meeting opened with a man in a red coat carrying in a ceremonial mace and putting it on the front table. There was lots on the agenda before I got to speak including the admission of two new Burgesses of the Guild. I had never heard of this before but it’s apparently an honour and as part of the ceremony the two Burgesses each had to present the provost with a white cotton purse containing five shillings Scots. Where they got the five shillings from I do not know.

It was more than an hour into the meeting before I got to speak and there were two of us giving a deputation about the lack of provision for cycling in their plans for the city. We are both united in our views and approached the same argument from different angles which I think worked well.

As I was sitting waiting for my turn and looking around the room it struck me that these people have to sit here listening for hours on end which can’t be fun. So I really wanted to engage people’s attention for my tiny 10-minute-slot. Here’s how I imagined I’d deliver my speech.

But in reality I think it was more like this:

SpongeBob SquarePants looking terrified

My vision of standing confidently at the front, mobilising the English language and sending it into battle fell over when I got up and realised my hands were trembling with fear. So to disguise this I put my notes on the table but because I was standing they were far away and I had to hunch down to see them. I’m getting close to 50 and no longer have 20/20 vision and forgot my reading glasses too. But I managed to spit it all out somehow.

There is reason to be hopeful now because an outcome of the meeting is they have added an addendum to the plans which include options for segregated cycle tracks on Union Street and other city centre streets. The full update is online – city centre improvements update.

For future reference, here’s the transcript of my deputation.

When I ride my bicycle on Union Street, I feel like the kid from the film Terminator 2, in the scene where he is on a motorbike pursued by the Terminator in a lorry. It is frightening and intimidating to have a large vehicle right behind you when you’re on a bicycle.

When someone makes a decision about whether they are going to drive or cycle somewhere, perceptions of safety are just as important, if not more, than actual safety, because most of us will not do anything that feels dangerous and we certainly do not want our children or loved ones putting themselves in danger. 

What you have planned for Union Street is not inclusive of the vast majority of people in Aberdeen because of these perceptions of safety. It is only accessible to confident cyclists who already cycle and so I want to emphasise that it is misleading to say these plans are accessible and inclusive. 

Scotland’s recently updated Cycling by Design design guidance makes this clear when it says putting cyclists and buses in the same space benefits only experienced and confident cycle users. For this reason, and I quote from the guidance, “new cycle facilities should not be planned to share space with buses”. 

We are told that mixing different modes is in line with the guidance in low traffic, low speed environments but what has been ignored is that Union Street is not a quiet residential street – it’s our high street and Cycling by Design specifically excludes the high street as having potential for cycle users to mix with traffic. We’re also talking not about cars but about very large vehicles – buses. The larger the difference in mass between different road users the more important it is to give them their own space.

Additionally, traffic modelling for Union Street puts the number of vehicles per hour (200-400pcs) at the limit of what Cycling by Design describes as providing a medium level of service for cyclists – and a medium level is already a pretty low bar for new infrastructure in the 21st century – this means it’s not suitable for novice users. But there’s also no room for growth because any increases in public transport provision will very quickly downgrade the central corridor of Union Street from medium to low level service for cycling – this means it’s unsuitable for a large range of users including novice and intermediate. There is no future-proofing or forward-thinking in these plans.

We currently have a climate crisis, an obesity crisis, and a pollution crisis – cycling can help solve all of them but only if you encourage more people to take up cycling. According to the 2021 Sustrans Walking and Cycling Index, only 4% of Aberdeen residents travel by bike as their main mode of transport but 32% of residents say they would like to cycle and I always hear the same refrain from people who want to cycle but don’t – it isn’t safe. 70% of people in our city want cycle tracks that are physically separated from traffic and pedestrians. 

Every mile that someone chooses to cycle instead of drive brings a net benefit of 94p to the local economy. This is £19 million annually. Designing and building for bicycles reduces costs to the NHS, reduces pollution, reduces traffic, reduces road maintenance costs, reduces employee absenteeism, improves air quality and reduces our carbon emissions. Spending on cycling infrastructure is wonderful value for money. For every £1 you spend, £5.50 is returned to the community in benefits.

We are told there isn’t space to accommodate buses and include a separate cycle track. Aside from the obvious response to this that cycling ought to take priority over buses according to the Scottish government’s sustainable transport hierarchy I would also say that you are not being ambitious or creative enough. There are four lanes for vehicles on Union Street. If you make it two lanes instead by removing the laybys and making buses wait behind each other there’s plenty of space for a cycle track. Alternatively, make it one way for buses to free up space for cycling – there are other options if you sincerely want to make Aberdeen a cycling city that’s inclusive of everyone. 

The changes you make to Union Street today will be with us for decades to come. I recognise it’s not an easy decision to make and so I implore you to consider the feedback that was received in the September consultation that overwhelmingly supports cycling infrastructure. Consider the 70% of residents in this fine city who want cycle tracks that are physically separated from traffic. 

Don’t design something for people like me and Jon who already cycle. Design for a 12-year-old girl wanting to cycle to school. A 12-year-old wanting to cycle to the movies with her friends. A 12-year-old wanting to buy a Christmas present for her teacher. Now imagine Union Street with your proposals and that 12-year-old on her bicycle trying to get to the shops, wedged in between three buses – one in front, one behind and another on her right. Would you want that to be your daughter or granddaughter? 

5 thoughts on “One last plea for cycling infrastructure”

  1. This reads so well and persuasive, but – I’m already a convert. Hope it works well. One thing I sometimes say to folk worried about speaking in front of folk l imagine your audience sitting on their loos”, if nothing else it gives you a wee giggle and helps relax?

  2. Great presentation. It’s difficult not to be nervous in these situations, whatever you try, when something really matters and you know it’s important, and you know things are against you, it’s really difficult to get over those factors, so well done.

    1. Thanks, Denise. I’m glad I live somewhere where I can have the opportunity to speak before all our politicians at once. Even though it is scary I think that’s something we should celebrate.

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