The devil is in the local detail

Blog post posted on 30/01/18 |

Last night I felt a little like the proverbial Daniel entering the lion’s den. I was taking part in a sustainable transport debate at the University of Plymouth at the invitation of the Plymouth Cycling Campaign. An audience of around 100, mainly active cyclists, had assembled to hear all sides of the road user debate. I learned three things very quickly. One, Plymouth is a long way from anywhere, but is a busy place with traffic and mobility problems similar to any city in the UK. Secondly, if you have the local MP on stage with you, a nice man called Gary Streeter, then he gets all the flak! Thirdly, no matter how you paint the broad national picture it is the local issues that raise the most interest and debate.

My input was mainly derived from the IAM RoadSmart Safety Culture Report for 2017 which shows concerns among drivers about aggressive cyclists and also lack of support for a law putting the onus on the driver in collisions with cyclists or pedestrians. But, there are also more positive findings about speeding in urban areas and general support for road safety. I tried to accentuate the positive in my presentation and answers afterwards because there is a lot of common ground among road users. For example we are all worried about distraction – pedestrians and cyclists on phones are risking their lives every bit as much as drivers doing the same – perhaps even more!

I also feel that the new investment in trunk roads by Highways England plus new money for the most high risk local roads will benefit vulnerable road users. New roads tend to be designed with walkers, horse riders and cyclists in mind. Transport Focus are also charged with measuring the satisfaction of all road users with our main roads and that includes vulnerable groups. If you add in a government walking and cycling strategy with a little new money behind it then things are starting to move in the right direction for us all. But, if drivers’, cyclists’ and pedestrians’ everyday experience of the road network is one of hassles, diversions, potholes and downright dangerous road layouts then any good news at the national level seems very hard to believe. I am sure Plymouth is not alone in this, but the audience soon listed many examples of unusable cycling routes, cyclists’ needs ignored during roadworks and a variety of other local problems.

Planners and engineers need to know about this detail if they are to really address the problems and get people to consider other modes of transport that help the environment and reduce congestion. Plymouth Cycling Campaign is an excellent example of a well organised local group that gets involved in the nitty gritty of local transport problems and one of their active members is also an IAM RoadSmart member. Whilst those of us with a national role can help with the bigger picture, our local groups really can offer valuable insights on their local roads. Poor junctions, uncoordinated roadworks and of course potholes are just three examples where they can get involved plus commenting on local transport plans as they come up for consultation.

We will continue to fight the corner for safer roads for drivers and riders but until everyone in every corner of the UK feels safer on their local roads, progress is not really being made. I was also reassured that at the event there was recognition that ultimately it is changing road user behaviour that ensures that all the well meaning strategies and investment plans get delivered.

By Neil Greg, IAM RoadSmart's policy and research director