Thursday, 4 April 2013

East of Plymouth

It is a well-known fact that the city of Plymouth benefits from having the rather lovely Drake's Trail, a (mostly) traffic-free cycle path that leads from the city all the way to Tavistock, via Yelverton, and includes the Plym Valley path.

Indeed, Plymouth is the end-point (or start-point, depending on your direction of travel) of the Devon Coast to Coast cycle route, also known as National Cycle Network route 27, or NCN27 for short. Furthermore, the city is the starting point for those crossing from France to continue cycling the Velodyssee route, which in itself is part of EuroVelo 1.
Then there is NCN2, which links the city with Ivybridge (and further) via a sort-of acceptable cycle route. NCN2 of course continues into Cornwall, through the luscious Mt Edgecombe estate (where it sadly also pretty much disappears, pending further route devlopment work).

It would therefore seem natural to assume that Plymouth is covered very well by longer-distance cycle routes.

And yet, if you tried cycling East, out of the city, and not head off towards Ivybridge, but instead stay nearer the coast, you will sooner or later find you are forced to cycle on the A379. This is a fairly busy, narrow A-road and is the main route for traffic between Plymouth and Kingsbridge.

Originally NCN2 was meant to run parallel to the A379 and to this day there are NCN2 markers on a short stretch of traffic-free path built mostly along the course of the disused Yealmpton branch line.
Parts of this cycle path are pretty good, with a smooth tar surface and, as is usually the case with paths built on disused railway lines, gentle gradients that help make it a pleasure to ride along here. The good parts are outside the Plymouth City limits, while the parts of the path inside the Plymouth city limits are atrociously poor. Those parts are unsurfaced, often extremely muddy, eroded, overgrown and generally unpleasant.

Yes, there is a pattern here: Plymouth does not believe in maintaining cycle paths at all - a severely short-sighted approach visible all over the city.

Seeing as this path is so poor, it really is no option for anybody not on a decent mountain bike, with the right skills, and who is prepared to get mud splattered all over them while riding there. It is also a far slower option than going by road.

And that leaves us with the A379. Between Plymouth and the village of Brixton it has a 40mph speed limit, which predictably many drivers treat as a legal minimum. Past Brixton, the speed limit is 60mph and if you were to cycle along here you should be prepared for drivers that overtake you extremely closely while doing 60mph (or more).

Even more scary than cars speeding past like that is when heavy articulated trucks do so! Having said that, I have to say in my experience by far the greatest majority of truck and bus drivers along this road will wait behind cyclists until it is safe to overtake, then give cyclists enough room when overtaking.

There was a Sustrans-supported plan to extend the existing traffic-free path all the way to the village of Yealmpton, which would have meant cyclists could avoid the A379 altogether, at least between Yealmpton and Plymouth. Sadly, this idea was shot down by the Bastard family, who own Kitley Estate, as they refuse to grant permission for the route over the estate.

And yes, that was an extremely short-sighted decision as having the path could have brought a great deal of additional custom to Kitley House, which was run as a hotel. Kitley House, as a separate business not affecting Kitley Estate, has since gone into administration. It really puzzles me, in this day and age to find businesses that would actively obstruct potentially lucrative sources of new customers, as they appear to have done here.

There are plans for a different route, to run very close to the A379, but that route will have such steep gradients that people in wheel chairs won't be able to use it at all and indeed many cyclists may stuggle with the gradients. Also, the alternative route would be far narrower - an inferior option in every aspect.

Mind-bogglingly, the Bastard family stated they'd permit this alternative route to proceed only if an agreement was made not to try an re-open the disused railway route for a further 25 years! Even more mind-bogglingly, that absolutely ridiculous condition was accepted.

Devon County Council has a pretty good track record when delivering cycling infrastructure, though sadly outside Exeter that ability only seems to exist in West Devon. The South Hams, through which this route goes, appears to be absolutely backwards in supporting cycling.

West Devon Borough Council clearly states that they see cycling as a key method to improve the economy of the almost entirely rural area. The South Hams, however, has a completely different demographic and some villages, like Newton Ferrers, is almost a ghost town during winter, due to the high number of homes there belonging to second-home owners.

With so many affluent people living there, this simply means that the South Hams' economy is far stronger, and it therefore appears that the South Hams Borough Council feels they don't have to pander to cyclists' needs to further their economy. Besides, people driving large, expensive 4x4s or luxury German cars typically don't want "their" roads full of cyclists, so politically cycling essentially has NO support at all.

So where does this leave us? With no firm plans for any path between Plymouth and Yealmpton, not in a good position at all.

For starters, there is Sherford, a planned new town of around 7 000 homes to be built in the South Hams. This will create a huge increase in traffic along the A379, through the village of Brixton and into Plymouth and by itself was one of the primary reasons behind the East End traffic scheme that resulted in Gdynia Way being widened to three lanes.

While there are on-carriageway cycle lanes along Billacombe Road, eastbound from the roundabout with Pomphlett Road to just past the Elburton roundabout and westbound from just before the Elburton roundabout to the Stenaway Road roundabout, these are likely to disappear. Plymouth City Council has plans for putting in dedicated bus lanes along Billacombe Road, leaving no road space for cycle lanes.

At Laira Bridge, the old railway bridge will be re-opened as a cycling and foot bridge towards 2014/5 but ultimately that is to allow the pavements on Laira Bridge to be taken away to allow more traffic lanes.

Clearly far from hope for the future, it actually seems that cycling out towards Yealmton will become more unpleasant, more intimidating and more dangerous, with the only bit of good news for cyclists being the fact that they'd be able to filter through the gridlock created by all the extra traffic.

Is this the future we really want? Is this really how to make cities, towns and villages more liveable and people-friendly? When will we learn that it is folly to plan, design and built almost exclusively for the car?