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Next entry: Yesterday, before the Stormageddon

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Thursday, 24 October 2013
#SurreyCycle Debate: A Report


Yesterday evening I attended the #SurreyCycle Debate, organised by Surrey Matters (propaganda sheet of the Surrey County Council).  The debate was led by the above panel, comprising of (from left to right):
Nick Ephgrave (Deputy Chief Constable Surrey Police), Simon Pratt (Sustrans), Helyn Clack (Surrey County Council), James Cannon (Surrey Radio, in the chair), Ian Huggins (sponsor of petition against cycling road closures), David Preedy (LibDem leader of the Mole Valley District Council), Johnny Clay (British Cycling).

I arrived at the venue at the University of Surrey in Guildford, registered, helped myself to a complimentary cup of coffee and sat waiting for the auditorium to open.  A friendly man sat next to me and introduced himself as John Furey, a Surrey County Councillor, and we got chatting.  He told me that he was responsible for the transport portfolio on the Council (I resisted saying “Oh, you are the one who got caught for drink driving”). He also told me that he was not on the panel because they only needed one Surrey Councillor on the panel, and the person already on the panel is more attractive than he is (and I resisted saying, “Oh that’s not saying much”).  For the record, I am informing you about my inner voices were telling me at this stage, so that you can appreciate what a battle I had all evening during the sometimes heated debate.

When we entered the meeting room, I sat next to a friendly woman whose first words to me were “I won’t bite you”. I thought this was a rather strange way to introduce oneself, but she then told me her name and we discussed the topic at hand.  She is a lapsed (she said “latent”) cyclist, but had cycled to the meeting. She had lapsed cycling because of the increasing danger of cycling her route from home to work, due to cars racing/rat-running down country lanes between Guildford and Woking, and the absence of proper cycling infrastructure.  She later told me that she didn’t think we would ever get the neccessary infrastructure from Surrey County Council (“it’s not going to happen, is it?”) and she later made this point on the radio. Her personal solution is that all cyclists should wear high visibility clothing.  I took this to be a compromise solution, but it didn’t come across like that when she made her point on the radio.

Most of the meeting addressed the issue of organised cycling events in Surrey.  There is one high profile cycling race that results in road closures (the Surrey 100 mile event, following the 2012 London Olympic cycling route).  It has now run for 2 years, and apparently Surrey Council has committed to a further 3 years (at least) to this mass event as part of an Olympics legacy.  Ian Huggins has organised a petition calling on such events to be banned and he spoke strongly and at length on this, and the impact it has on people living or working on the route. He was supported by David Preedy and some audience members.  In addition to their complaints about the “lockdown” on the route, they were complaining that Surrey Council did not properly consult with residents and businesses in making this commitment.  There were some rather strange statements made, for example Preedy claimed that there were 250 road closures due to cycling events in the past year. Surrey Police and Council responded that there was only one event (the Surrey 100) which resulted in a whole day closure and one other (The Tour of Britain) which resulted in a 30 minute “rolling” closure.  Preedy and Huggins also claimed to be pro-cyclist (but anti cycling events) and yet they also claimed that the rural roads of Surrey were not suitable for bicycles.  The example given was of a single track road, with passing refuges, as a road which was suitable for motor cars, but not for bicycles.  I thought this was a bizarre statement, since bicycles can pass each other with no problems on such roads whereas it is the cars that need to use the passing refuges (in case of an oncoming car or bicycle).  The only sense I could make of this statement was that they were complaining that cycling events were using such roads, but we would need to have more details to judge this: what time of day, how many cyclists, what time of event, what length of road this was, how long it was being used, etc.  However the chair of the meeting didn’t challenge or question such blanket statements: he seemed to take as fact that drivers should be annoyed by such occurances. He also didn’t seem to think that most people would, conversely, be more annoyed by drivers that were using such rural roads as rat runs and avoiding the busy trunk roads.

Anyway, I listened to the debate for over an hour, wondering when my concerns were going to come up.  My top three concerns being: infrastructure, infrastructure, and infrastructure (or put differently “space for cycling”, “space for cycling” and “space for cycling”).  I have never ridden in an organised cycling sportive (although I have now resolved to do so, so I will report back on this experience in due course).  Several other people in the audience had obviously come to the meeting with the same idea.  A man who runs a bicycle business in Guildford spoke about how the focus is on cycling as a sport, but the objective should be to make it a valid and safe form of transport for all people. A woman spoke emotionally about how she is 58, and drives and cycles. None of her friends of similar age are prepared to cycle, because they don’t feel safe. She spoke of how she is abused by drivers with objects (and urine) being thrown at her, and yet is not afforded protection by the Council or Police, and she asked when this was going to be addressed.  She said, asked that we address the cycling strategy as a whole.  A number of people raised the need for segrated cycling infrastructure, and for reduced speed limits in our towns and villages.  At least one person pointed out that cycle infrastructure in Surrey consists of lines of paint on the road when it is wide, but dissappears completely whenever the road narrows.

At this point I noticed how the chair James was comfortable following his script and printed notes/talking points but was not able to respond to the issue being raised. He had been briefed about all the gripes that drivers or residents might have against cyclists, but he didn’t seem to be briefed on how cyclists viewed the conflictual relationship, nor about the gripes that cyclists have (against government authorities or fellow road users).  Earlier in the meeting James had put a complaint about “lycra louts” to Simon, who had (partly) responded with the comment that he was not concerned with what cyclists wore.  It has been written more eloquently elsewhere how, while loutish behaviour is a problem in any context, the frequent criticism of “lycra louts” or MAMILS also involves the mocking of a group of people because they look or dress differently to the norm.  I would expect the BBC to clarify that you can’t tar all people with the same brush in this way. We wouldn’t do it with people who wear football shirts, trainers, or track-suits.  Of course I guess people do it (referring to “chavs” for example) but would the BBC let a panel member or caller get away with mocking a group of people like that on live radio show?

I thought that Simon picked up on the questions about the overall strategy quite well, and he stated that the number one priority of a transport strategy for Surrey (and indeed the whole of the UK) needs to be to ensure that all children can safely cycle or walk to school.  Helyn didn’t respond to these very well, focusing on the fact that Surrey Council gives cycle education to thousands of school pupils, highlighting that there were great difficulties in providing segregated cycling infrastructure, mentioning that Surrey Council would continue with its incremental (slowly slowly) approach, and even claiming that some cyclists had told her that they enjoyed the challenge of cycling on Surrey’s potholed roads. The last statement was greeted with laughter by the audience.

The point of this post was not to write a long synopsis of the meeting, so I am going to end here, but you can listen to the debate for the next week here:
The BBC Surrey Cycling Debate.

And here are some of the #SurreyCycle tweets from the event, and its aftermath:

Posted by bigblue on 24/10/2013 at 03:00 PM
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