Thursday, 13 October 2011

Why is Plymouth being stupid?

It takes a lot to run a city the size of Plymouth, and there is at any point in time huge scope for things to go wrong. Everything needs maintaining and demands on budgets are made all the time from all directions. In a commercial environment this would be hard enough, but throw elected officials into the mix and what seemed really hard rapidly become borderline impossible.

Just think about it: the elected councillors want to be seen to be representing their constituents, and may be fighting for what is best for their ward, while the council employees have a duty to the city as a whole, instantly creating conflicts.

Now add central governmental statutes, limitations and demands, and finish off with a generous helping of party politics and you almost end up with insanity.

Given the above, it is a minor miracle cities like Plymouth manage to function at all!

Seriously, imagine that you are in charge of rubbish collection. You'd need to work out all the logistics, while keeping costs down. This may mean re-designing the routes that bin lorries take, bearing in mind there are many spots where they can get stuck, and you're limited by the number of vehicles and the number of crews, as well as a myriad of other things. Oh yes, and you're working under the constant double-edged sword of 'elf-n-safety! Would you want to do that job? I don't!

In light of this, I have immense sympathy and respect for all those hard-working people that manages to keep this city going. However...

Plymouth is not just a city council, and not just a place where people live and work. Plymouth has a rich history and a vibrant community, but is still so much more.

Now one thing any town or city needs, is economic sustainability. Traditionally, it appears that wealth in the UK ends when you go further south west that Bristol (yes, I know you/your mom/dad/uncle/cousin/best  friend/neighbour is filthy rich, but we're looking at the average here, OK?). Property prices go up, courtesy of second home owners, water is the most expensive in the UK, and wages are well below average.
Worse yet, with the M5 ending at Exeter, it seems practically nobody is prepared to put real investment further west!

So how can we make Plymouth, and many other towns and cities in the region more economically viable?

That is a difficult, if not impossible, question to comprehensively answer and I will not even attempt to do so. The truth is i am not qualified to even attempt to give a comprehensive answer.

But there IS something we can do that can have a real impact - something I do have some first-hand knowledge of. That something, is cycle tourism.

Now if you would stop foaming at the mouth about "those bloody cyclists that don't even pay road tax" and listen for a moment, perhaps you'll find some sense in what I say. Oh yeah, and there is NO such thing as ROAD tax either - go look here for more information.

Let me kick things off by pointing out that cycle tourists spend more money per day than non-cycling tourists. It doesn't take too many brain cells to work this one out; cycle tourists carry less on their bikes, and instead depend on restocking supplies as they go along. This simply means that cycle tourists are worth more economically than other toursists.

The next point is that cycle tourists tend to be more mature, often with more money to spend. Although bicycle touring can be an extremely cheap way of seeing the country, many (most?) such tourists do it because they enjoy cycling, and not to save money. This necessarily means they prefer touring in places where it is nice to ride a bike. Note I said nice and not flat, or easy.

Cycle tourists typically have a far smaller carbon footprint, due to their chosen method of travel, and the fact that they often use public transport to get to the point where they start their tour means there are fewer holiday-maker cars on the roads. Remember that next time it takes you but a moment to safely overtake a cyclist, only to get stuck behind somebody towing a hulking great caravan!

With these basic principles established, let's have a look at Plymouth. Plymouth is one of the main points-of-entry to the UK for European cyclists using the cycle routes heavily promoted through the Cycle West site. Cycle West is an Anglo-French collaboration to get decent long-distance cycle routes that span across and between South West England and Brittany.

The Cycle West project is quite well funded, and is in fact the source of funding for the roughly two million Pounds cost associated with the new Gem Bridge being built over the Walkham valley, near Tavistock.

Plymouth is also the end (or start, depending on your direction of travel) of the Devon Coast-to-coast cycle route (National Cycle Network or NCN route number 27) that runs between the city and Ilfracombe on the North Devon coast.

Furthermore, Plymouth is set in an exquisite environment. Anybody that has ever stood on the Hoe will know that few, if any cities can rival such a setting. We are in fact spoilt rotten, nestled between the sea and Dartmoor. There are, after all, very good reasons why many people travel from all over the country to come and holiday in our region.

To recap, we have the environment that tourists want to see, and we know cycle tourists spend more, so it stands to reason that we really want to attract more of them.

Now let's look at what we are in reality offering these free-spending cycle tourists, shall we? Are you ready for this?

The NCN 27 route is meant to start at the continental ferry port. Try cycling from there to the Coypool Park and Ride, using the existing signage. Unless you already know the route, I can almost guarantee that you WILL go off route. That means that, unless you're local, you'd be lost.

Now look at the cycling infrastructure in this fair city of ours. Not a lot of it, is there? And what there is is often sub-standard and poorly maintained. Seriously. Once you get out of your car and start cycling, you'll soon see what I mean. With very few exceptions, Plymouth's cycling infrastructure will slow you down, force you to surrender any priority you may otherwise have had over side traffic, and in places is simply mind-bogglingly stupid (not to mention dangerous!)

Cycling from the Barbican towards Laira bridge, it is perfectly understandable that cyclists aren't permitted to cycle across the swing bridge. Just past the aquarium, however, there is an unofficial "No cycling" sign, which carries no legal status. This is exactly on the route being advertised under the Cycle West scheme!

At the junction of Finegan road with Laira bridge, there is no pedestrian/cyclist cycle to the lights when crossing Finegan road, and that crossing is dangerous. Crossing Billacombe road on the other side of the bridge can take several minutes and is not a pleasant experience.

Further along, when cycling from Saltram towards Marsh Mills, the cyclist/pedestrian bridge has an extremely poor and potholed surface, and the whole area is graffiti covered. Once you've crossed the bridge, look out for cars on the cycle path - every so often you'll find them there, as the bollards by Plymouth road have been removed.

Once on Plymouth road, cyclists are expected to cycle down a very narrow pavement alongside the on-ramp, at the end of which the lack of dropped kerbs force them to cross the road on a blind corner. Again, signage is extremely poor.

There are no signs that point the way to where the Plym Valley Trail continues right next to the entrance to Princess Yachts, and the trail is typically reduced by 1 meter or more due to vegetation overgrowth. It seems to never be swept, and there are no benches anywhere.

Contrast this with the Tarka Trail, which is well maintained and kept clear of overgrowth, with many benches at strategic or scenic spots along the way. The Tarka Trail also has good signage, including regular signs telling cyclists to ring their bell to let pedestrians know they're coming, and to slow down for pedestrians.

Nowhere on the path from Millbay docks to Plymbridge are any signs pointing cyclists at shops, restaurants, nor anything else. Think of it this way: if you were a cycle tourist, cycling through a city you don't know at all, would you want to leave the route to find shops? Of course not!

We're in a situation where thousands of cyclists are cycling right through our city and are not only ignored, but actually made to feel inferior and unwanted. That's not the way to treat valuable tourists, now is it?

Where are the signs pointing cyclists to a coffee shop, a supermarket, or even simply a picnic spot? Why are we not doing everything we can to make these cyclists welcome in our city, and encourage them to spend money here? Where are the "Alternative NCN 27 via shops" signs? Where are the decent cycle lanes, to make cycling attractive and pleasant, and in doing so attract thousands more cycling tourists? Why aren't any pavement-sweepers driving down the Plym Valley Trail every so often, just to sweep it clean and clear away any debris?

Plymouth is being enormously short sighted. Cornwall County Council estimates the value of direct spend that the Camel Trail generates at approximately four million Pounds per year. That figure excludes indirect costs, such as overnight accommodation and similar, and is considered a very conservative estimate.

Devon County Council is viewing cycle tourism as one of they key elements to promote rural economic growth. They have dedicated officers tasked with developing cycle routes, and that fact alone more than anything else is the reason why Gem Bridge is actually being built at all.

Plymouth has NO cycling officer, and the department that deals with it views cycling as an abberation. Oh, they talk the talk about sustainable travel, then install bull-trap barriers in locations where there is absolutely no need for them whatsoever. That same department refuses to follow Department for Transport guidelines for cycling infrastructure, resulting in poorly-designed and sub-standard cycling provision being put in place.

Just Google for "cycle friendly hotels Plymouth" and you will see NOT ONE place of accommodation targeting cyclists. Look at the overall lack of secure cycle parking stands across the city.

Just look at our city with new eyes - those of a potentially highly lucrative and mostly untapped market. This is a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked, but our city is pulling its nose up at it, and that is as sad as it is stupid.