Monday, 28 January 2013

A (very) quick tour of Backwell's cycling infrastructure

In order to work out what needs to be done, it's useful to understand what Backwell currently enjoys (if that's the right word) by way of cycling infrastructure.

For those of you who aren't Backwell residents, this is what Wikipedia says about Backwell:

Backwell is a rural village and civil parish in Somerset, England. It falls within the Unitary Authority of North Somerset and has a population of 5,455. It is 7 miles (11.3 km) south west of Bristol, on the A370 to Weston-super-Mare.

Here's a brief history taken from the draft Backwell Neighbourhood Plan:

A brief history of Backwell. Backwell is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. In the 18th century the parish comprised the hamlets of Church Town, Farleigh, West Town, Downside and Moorside (Backwell Common). The oldest settlement is Church Town. St Andrew’s Church dates from the 14th century. The road from Farleigh to Church Town to West Town was the medieval highway. The track from Farleigh to West Town was improved in the 18th century and is now the A370. Most of the modern housing was constructed in the period 1950-80.

In the post-war period these hamlets, with the exception of Downside, gradually coalesced via a combination of ribbon development along the main highways and infilling, to form the main built-up area of the village. Each hamlet still retains something of its original identity, partly because of the distance between them: from the edge of West Town to Farleigh is around one and a half miles, and from Church Town to Moorside (the Station) is around a mile. This distance also makes the average length of journeys within the built-up area longer than would be expected for a village of Backwell's size of population.   

The current local and county development plans envisage little further residential development, although at least one major housebuilding company is known to own a parcel of land in the village.

The main A370 passes through the village. For better or ill, Backwell was never bypassed (unlike Long Ashton) and hence suffers considerably from through-traffic between Bristol and Weston-Super Mare.

The other main road axis within the village runs at 90 degrees to the A370, with the roads bisecting at the crossroads next to the village hall. To the south of the A370 is Dark Lane, to the north (heading towards Nailsea) is Station Road. Here's a map:

(taken from Sustrans online mapping)

All of these roads are severely congested, particularly at peak times, and present considerable dangers to cyclists, especially inexperienced ones. Whilst much of the A370 is relatively wide, and could accommodate segregated or shared-use cycling facilities on at least one side of the road (with a few width challenges in places), Station Road and, to a lesser extent, Dark Lane present much greater engineering challenges due to their very narrow width along much of their length. 

Backwell does have two major advantages, however. The first is that it is relatively flat, with the ground only rising to a noticeable extent as you go along Dark Lane towards Church Town. The second is that there remain, between the four hamlets, large areas of undeveloped land, either farmland, or playing fields, which could potentially accommodate safe cycling and walking routes for people to move around the village avoiding the A370 and Station Road/Dark Lane.

Neither advantage has, to date, been exploited and Backwell remains almost completely devoid of any such safe routes, even as other nearby communities such as Nailsea, Long Ashton and Clevedon are busy adding to theirs. It is understood that there have been some attempts to establish a safe route from Station Road to Chelvey, avoiding the A370, although there seems to be no immediate prospect of such a route being built.

It is to be hoped that the Backwell Neighbourhood Plan, called 'Backwell Future', will, once finalised and adopted, offer a springboard to develop such infrastructure - ideally in the form of a proper network of well-signed, well-surfaced shared-use paths - over the 14-year lifetime of the Plan (to 2026).

OK, back to the present day.

Our tour starts at the village crossroads (A370/Station Road/Dark Lane). You may have missed it, but there is a 20 yard stretch of on-road cycle lane as you approach the crossroads heading towards Bristol (Exhibit 1). Here it is:

Sadly the painted lines and bike symbol have become so worn by passing traffic that they are barely visible. Rather a strong sign that the cycle lane was being routinely ignored by drivers. This cycle lane feeds into an advanced stop line ('ASL'), a better picture of which is below (again, being ignored by this driver):

At least the road width here actually allows cyclists to access the ASL, unlike the ones on Station Road and Dark Lane. Want to try to filter alongside cars on those roads? Good luck with that. Anyhow, the four ASL's at the crossroads go on the list as Exhibit 2.

You have to hunt around a bit to find the next bit of infrastructure. Here we have some bike racks at the village centre shops on Rodney Road (Exhibit 3). One of which seems to have suffered at the hands of a reversing driver, but hey, it's still just about usable:

There are also some bike racks at the doctor's surgery (Exhibit 4):

....and at the Station, where a total of 38 bikes can be accommodated in two discrete shelters. Unusually, two car parking bays were sacrificed to make space for this one (Exhibit 5):

I suppose I should also include the signage to the National Cycle Network at the junction of Station Road and Backwell Common, although I'm not sure whether this counts as infrastructure. Nice colour though (Exhibit 6):

Sustrans' online route mapping shows the paths around the Moor Lane play area as cycle paths, although they aren't actually signed as shared-use and are a little narrow so probably don't count, but I've included them anyway (Exhibit 7):

There is one superb bit of infrastructure which is tantalisingly close, but really belongs to Nailsea. I'm including it here as an example of what is needed, and what can be achieved where planners and councils put their minds to it. This is on Station Road, at Bucklands Batch on the edge of Nailsea. Sadly it is only around 50 yards long before it stops abruptly and forces cyclists back out into the main carriageway - a feature of too much cycling infrastructure in the UK sadly.

That's more or less it. To the extent that there is any more infrastructure, and I have missed it, let me know. There is what I would describe as some 'anti-infrastructure' in the form of 'No cycling' signs. The picture below could be taken as a symbol of Backwell's current predicament, really.....

If you would like to change this, please join us by emailing and in the meantime 'liking' our facebook page at

In a future post I will look at how well (or otherwise) Backwell provides for pedestrians and those with mobility problems.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Supporting local shops, without more parking

"Adequate customer parking is essential to the viability of a local centre".

So says the Backwell Neighbourhood Plan, whilst at the same time proposing to convert an area of pavement outside the local shops into additional parking spaces.

But is this statement true? And could investment in safe cycling and walking routes actually do more to support the viability of local shops?

There's quite a lot of stuff out there suggesting that the economic benefits of investing in cycling infrastructure can be considerable, and appear to be underestimated by local & county councils and planners who at the same time overestimate the benefits of free parking.

Of course every place is different. There might be more justification, for example, in providing additional free car parking in a local centre which draws customers from a wide rural area which is poorly served by public transport, and is perhaps too hilly for most people to realistically cycle any distance to the centre. But this needs to be balanced with the entitlement of the residents of the village or town to enjoy a local centre which is not overwhelmed by traffic and retains a sense of place. If the balance isn't right, those residents may decide to jump in their own cars and, having done so, feel they might as well drive 10 miles as 2 miles, to shop at the nearest mall or large retail outlet.

So, what's the evidence? Much of the stuff you can find online relates to overseas studies, so may not be hugely persuasive at local level in the UK but it is nonetheless interesting.

This is an image you might have seen before, taken from a report by New York City's Department of Transportation in October 2012 (yes, I know this is Manhattan but still, an increase of 49% in retail sales for these two streets with protected bike lanes, compared to 3% borough-wide, is a pretty impressive statistic):

This image is taken from a Danish study in 2002 (link courtesy of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain):

This is from a more recent study in Oregon, USA; the three graphs below show:
  • total spending per shopping trip
  • total number of shopping trips per month
  • total estimate of spending per month
in each case divided into 4 categories of retail outlet (supermarkets, restuarants, pubs and convenience stores), and, broken down by transport mode (cycling is shown in brown, cars in black, walking in light green and public transport in dark green).
What's interesting is that there seems to be a strong correlation between the Danish and Oregon studies: on average, cyclists spend less per visit, but a similar or greater sum per week (Danish study) or per month (Oregon), when compared to drivers (the Oregon study actually shows that, in convenience stores, cyclists spend about the same as drivers per visit).

Of course given that cycling has a much lower modal share than driving, especially in the UK, shopkeepers' total income from car drivers will be perceived to be greater and hence shopkeepers may be under the impression that the only way to increase trade is to court yet more drivers via increased free parking.

The reason why I say perceived is that, as the Danish study shows, and other studies confirm, retailers greatly overestimate the proportion of their customers who have arrived by car and underestimate the proportion who have come on foot, and, to a lesser extent, by bike. Here's an image courtesy of Sustrans, which brings things a bit closer to home:

Note that whereas the shopkeepers thought that 41% of their customers came by car, in fact only 22% actually did so - a near 50% overestimate!

Anyhow, because of this (false) perception, it's perhaps understandable why retailers may focus on the 'need' for additional car parking, and be indifferent to proposals for better facilities for cyclists or pedestrians - or even hostile if they perceive these to be at the expense of existing parking spaces, or plans to increase the number of parking spaces. 

The Danish and US studies suggest that providing better facilities for cyclists and pedestrians has the potential to provide a greater boost to local shops, especially convenience stores, when compared to additional parking - even leaving aside the external costs which such parking may impose in the form of increased traffic congestion, pollution etc. which of course aren't accounted for in the retailer's profit & loss accounts.

Indeed, in some cases providing additional parking may not result in any increase in trade and could even damage trade where the net effect is to produce a local centre which has lost it's sense of place, and is no longer somewhere that people actually want to linger, to meet other people, and to spend money. Look around at the many high streets and local centres which have boarded up shops and you will see that the problem is not a lack of parking but rather a lack of people actually spending time (and money) there.

In the light of this, what are we to make of the statement in the draft Plan below?

"Adequate customer parking is essential to the viability of a local centre"

It all comes down to what we mean by "adequate" of course. Having no parking at all may indeed threaten the viability of a local centre, where a significant proportion of shoppers travel from a wide rural catchment. It's all about maintaining a healthy balance between parking on the one hand, and preserving or enhancing a sense of place on the other. Any genuinely objective assessment of what is "adequate" should allow for the possibility of taking some existing car parking spaces away and increasing the space made over to cyclists and pedestrians.

Unfortunately in putting forward plans to increase the number of parking spaces at the expense of an area of pavement, there's no indication that such an objective assessment has been made, in spite of the draft Plan claiming to be evidence-based. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is what the statement really means:

"Additional customer parking is essential to the viability of a local centre"

For the reasons above, there are much stronger grounds to conclude that: 

"Additional cycling and pedestrian facilities, promoting a strong sense of place, are essential to the viability of a local centre"

If such additional facilities lead to an increase in the number of local residents who travel to the local shops by bike or on foot, fewer will take up the existing parking spaces, which in turn frees up those spaces for people coming by car from the wider rural catchment and may therefore induce more of those people to shop in the local centre as opposed to elsewhere, confident that they will get a space.

A virtuous circle in which there are no losers.

PS If you want to read a really persuasive article on why more town centre parking is daft, you can do no better than to read the blog item here. For a better summary of the evidence (or lack of it) in favor of more and/or free parking, click here and here.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Exchange with North Somerset Council's Highways Dept

Image: Google maps

Here's an exchange I've just had with North Somerset Council's Highways Dept relating to the plans to widen the stretch of pavement along West Town Road shown above (on the left of the picture). As you will see, there are no plans to make this a shared-use path, and it remains to be seen whether any steps will be taken to reduce the danger to cyclists as a result of the narrowing of the roadway. As usual, cyclists are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to allocating carriageway space. If you want to change this in Backwell, please sign up to the campaign!

My email of 21.1.13 to the Parish Council (which they suggested I readdress to North Somerset's Highways Dept):

Hi, I understand that there are plans to widen a section of pavement in West Town next to the crossing at the Rising Sun pub.

I would be grateful if you could let me have details of what is proposed, or contact details for the person who could provide such details.

My interest is as a member of Backwell Sustainable Travel Action Group (“BSTAG”), formed in November 2012 to promote active travel within the village. The Group’s key objective is to see the development of a network of safe, shared-use paths for utility cyclists and pedestrians (including those with mobility problems) within Backwell. Among the routes being considered is a safe shared-use path along the A370 in West Town, as identified by a number of residents in the 2009 village questionnaire (link to summary of findings below):

On behalf of the Group I would like to understand whether the plans for the pavement widening envisage shared-use by pedestrians and cyclists, or use by pedestrians only. If the latter, are the current plans capable of being adapted to provide for shared-use? The Group would be extremely concerned if the effect of widening the pavement is either (a) to lose the opportunity of incorporating a shared-use path along this stretch of the main road in the future (b) a narrowing of the carriageway such that cyclists (including children) are made even more vulnerable than at present.

I look forward to hearing from you

Yours sincerely

Peter Rogers

NSC Highways' reply of 23.1.13:

Dear Mr Rogers,
Thank you for your email. I was asked by Councillor Karen Barclay last year to look at the feasibility of widening approximately a 20 metre section of footway just to the north  east of the Rising Sun pub. At this location the footway was only 700mm at it's widest. Following the initial investigation it became obvious that the only way a widening could be carried out would be to narrow the road width at this section.
Some measurements were carried out, and it was realised that it would be feasible to widen the footway by 1 metre and still maintain a road width of 6.5 metres. Therefore a proposal was passed back to Cllr Barclay informing her of what would be feasible. Unfortunately North Somerset Council does not have sufficient funding to implement this scheme and therefore Cllr Barclay managed to gain funding from other sources.
Therefore we have a scheme in next years works programme for the widening of this section of footway. There was never any intention for this section of footway to be a shared use cycle/footway, We would need a minimum of 3 metres for a shared use and we simple do not have enough space to install such a facility, another consideration is that such a facility would not lead anywhere, we do not have cycle facilities through Backwell along this road and there is not enough space within the extent of the Public Highway to accommodate such a facility.
I understand that Kevin Speakman has been involved in the investigation of new cycleways with Backwell but unfortunately some of the proposals has been met with resistance locally. Having spoken to Kevin he has informed me that he will be getting in touch with you in the near future regarding cycleways and other issues within Backwell.
David Bailey
Senior Engineer
Highways and Transportation
North Somerset Council
Tel: 01934 426279
Fax: 01934 436884
Post: Town Hall, Walliscote Grove Road, Weston-super-Mare, BS23 1UJ

My response of 23.1.13:
Dear Mr Bailey
Thanks very much for your very speedy reply, and for the information about the current plans which I will share with the group.
Although this is disappointing news, it is not entirely unexpected. I would hope that, given this further narrowing of the road, some consideration could be given to road markings and/or signage so that cyclists are not further endangered. This is a stretch of road frequently used by cyclists, including children, to get to Chelvey Road, there being no alternative safe route. In the meantime I would hope that a forgiving attitude will be taken to pavement cycling at peak times along this stretch.
I have since heard from Kevin and hope to liaise with him going forward to address the need for this & other safe routes within the village.
Kind regards
Peter Rogers

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Results of Backwell Village Survey 2009: Safer cycling routes

The 2009 village survey asked residents what measures would encourage residents to cycle more. Here are the results:

The results indicated that the measure most likely to encourage Backwell residents to cycle more was the provision of safer cycle routes.

Where this option was selected, respondents were also asked to identify up to two locations for such routes.

The most popular choices were the “A370” and “Station Road”. “Backwell Common” was also popular, with many respondents wishing to see the existing Flax Bourton cyclepath extended all the way to Backwell.

The full results were as follows: 

1.     A total of 63 respondents identified “A370” or “Main road” as a priority for safe cycle routes, including the following specific locations/comments:

·         Farleigh Road (5)
·         West Town Road (4)
·         Rodney Road/shops to New Inn/Rising Sun (2)
·         “Backwell Crossroads to Old Weston Road”
·         “Brockley Combe”
·         “Crossroads to Dew Drop Inn”
·         “On A370 cycle lane on LHS”
·         “Cycle Lane on A370 through village”
·         “A370 to George PH”
·         “Along A370 from Flax Bourton to the Comprehensive School”
·         “Cycle path outside Parkers is useless”
·         “Wider pavements through town”
2.     59 respondents identified “Station Road”; comments included:

·         “Can’t get across, too narrow to cycle up”
·         “Widen Road”
·         “Safer lane on Station Rd”
3.     38 respondents provided non-specific locations of which 6 referred to schools:

·         “Everywhere” (13)
·         “Main routes” (4)
·         “All around” (2)
·         “To junior school” (2)
·         “Anywhere” (3)
·         “Throughout Backwell” (1)
·         “Backwell total” (1)
·         “Cycle Lanes on all major roads” (1)
·         “Around schools” (1)
·         “Backwell School” (1)
·         “School routes” (1)
·         “Many areas and main roads” (1)
·         “From schools” (1)
·         “To and from School” (1)
·         “Along most routes” (1)
·         “One end of Backwell to the other end” (1)
·         “Backwell” (2)
·         “Generally” (1)

4.     21 respondents identified Backwell Common including the need to extend or provide a link from Backwell to the existing Flax Bourton Cycle path; comments included:

·         “Extend cycle path to school and beyond”
·         “Cycle path across Backwell Common needs linking to Backwell”
·         “Extend Cycle parth from Flax Bourton to Backwell”
·         “Join the Flax Bourton cycle path”
·         “Backwell Common to cycle path”
·         “Access to Flax B’ton cycle path to Bristol”
·         “to link with cycle path”
·         “Extend cycle path to Bristol”
·         “Sustrans route came through Backwell”
·         “Continuation of cycle track”
·         “Continuation of cycle track from Chapel Hill to Station Road”
·         “Extend along railway”
·         “around Backwell Common”
·         “Sustrans route Backwell Common – Nailsea”
·         “Backwell Common Lodge Lane”
·         “Backwell Common – old Bridlepaths perhaps?”
·         “Backwell Common to Nailsea”

5.     19 respondents identified safe cycle routes to Bristol:

·         Via extending the cycle path (2)
·         Via the A370 (1)
·         No route specified (17)

6.     15 respondents identified safe cycle routes between Backwell and Nailsea:

·         Via Station Road (3)
·         Via Backwell Common (2)
·         No route specified (10)

7.     6 respondents identified Dark Lane.

8.     5 respondents identified routes to Yatton:

·         “Along A370 towards Claverham, Yatton etc”. (1)
·         “For Strawberry Line” (1)
·         No route specified (3)

9.     4 respondents identified Church Lane.

10.  4 respondents identified routes between Church Lane, Rodney Road and the Westfield area/West Leigh school:

·         “Church Lane to Westfield Drive”
·         “Rodney Road”
·         “Rodney Road to West Leigh”
·         “West Leigh School to Scout hut”

11.  4 respondents identified routes to Chelvey Lane avoiding the A370:

·         “Westfield Road to Chelvey Road (avoiding A370)”
·         “Westfield Road to Chelvey Road so that one need not ride on A370”
·         “Station Road to Chelvey Lane avoiding A370”
·         “Share lane with pedestrians between New Inn and shops”

12.  3 respondents identified Downside including:

·         “Downside and Hyatts”
·         “Downside to A38”

13.  3 respondents identified Long Ashton including “By-pass Long Ashton” 

14.  Other comments/routes included:

·         “Railway Bridge v dangerous”
·         “Crossroads and Embercourt Drive”
·         “To Portishead”
·         “Weston Super Mare”
·         “I thought there was a grand plan for cycle routes”