Councillor Brown and the unwelcome motorists

17th September 2019

Victoria Shopping Centre, Harrogate
Victoria Shopping Centre, Harrogate

Councillor Brown and the Unwelcome Motorists - it isn't an oddly named skiffle combo, but a reference to a letter from Bishop Monkton councillor Nick Brown to the Yorkshire Post.

The UCI World Championships

The letter is partly a grumble about the World Championships and the road closures that go with it. It says the cycling event isn't compatible with profitable retail shops. Councillor Brown suggests 'a long rest from any more of these events'.

It seems likely that the World Championships will be good for some businesses, and bad for others. (Those that close altogether during that week definitely won't profit from it!) We'll only know the true impact afterwards. In any case, a nine-day World Championship in Harrogate is a one-off.

Cars in the town centre

More interesting is the extent to which we want motor cars to dominate our town centre in the future.

The councillor says, 'I'm not a great believer in further knocking the motorist and making them unwelcome in the borough...Further pedestrianisation of our shopping quarters together with the inexorable rise in parking charges will not help our hard-pressed retail sector, who need to be profitable to survive.'

Well, if motorists are being told they are unwelcome, the message hasn't got through, because in Harrogate there are cars absolutely everywhere.

Victoria Avenue, Harrogate
Another Harrogate street full of parked cars...Victoria Avenue

If I lived in Bishop Monkton, I'd probably travel to Harrogate by car. But it isn't necessary or desirable for most Harrogate shoppers, who only live a mile or two away from the town centre.

Not everyone sees the world primarily through the windscreen of a car. I don't agree with the idea that 'the motorist' is knocked and made to feel unwelcome. In fact, when we are in our cars, we are given quite extraordinary priviledges and priority; and we should realise that our 'right' to drive and park when and where we want has negative impacts on other people.

1) Parking

According to the local MP's Harrogate Retail Inquiry, generally people think it's easy to find a parking space, and that the charges are just right.

Parking on a residential street in Harrogate
Parking on a residential street in Harrogate

Where I live, people park for free on residential streets in order to work or shop in the town centre. And my street has parked cars all the way along on both sides. We just accept that as normal, but if you think about it, is free use of public land to store private property. It hardly amounts to the motorist being knocked or hard done by.

This has an impact on vulnerable road users. The parked cars leave just one lane's width free in the middle of the road. If you try to ride a bike along there, you often get an impatient motorist right behind you, desperate to get past; and you're put into conflict with oncoming traffic. Most people end up cycling on the pavement - adults as well as children.

2) Traffic and shopping

Hardly any shopping is done from the inside of a car. Many people drive to a shopping area, but most of us don't need to park right in front of a shop. We can walk. (Of course special arrangements should be made for those who can't).

And traffic makes the shopping experience less pleasant. It creates noise, pollution, and danger. Wherever there are cars, they have priority, and people have to be on constant alert, ready to get out of the way so they don't get run over. That's why pedestrianisation of the town centre is desirable.

Cold Bath Road is another good example of a nice shopping area ruined by too many cars. It's the people on foot who spend money there; many of the cars are just driving through.

Tfl has some interesting information on spend by people on bikes and on foot, as compared to motorists - worth reading, because the amount spent by motorists is generally over-estimated, including by retailers.

TfL graphic - retail spend by cyclists and pedestrians

On Cold Bath Road, most of the space is given to cars - driving and parked. In places, the pavements are dangerously narrow. Much less space is given to people spending time and money on the street.

3) Rules of the road

Panal Ash Road
20mph being ignored on Pannal Ash Road

There's a 20mph limit on Cold Bath Road, and on some other streets in Harrogate, but more drivers exceed it than respect it. There are no consequences. If motorists are so 'knocked', why are we allowed to break the law with impunity?

The same goes for using mobile phones at the wheel. If you walk or cycle around town, you see it all the time. There must be hundreds of people in Harrogate driving and using their mobiles at any given moment, but I've never seen any police enforcement. If motorists are knocked, why are we allowed to put other people in danger in this way?

4) Priority and crossings

At most crossings, the default is that the lights are green for vehicles and red for pedestrians. That would be ok if they turned green for pedestrians as soon as the button was pushed (assuming nobody had recently crossed). North Yorkshire County Council ('NYCC') has a policy, though, to make people on foot wait before they can cross. After pressing the button, there is always a long delay before the lights change. That is what they call 'balance' between the interests of different road users, but it is no such thing. It is prioritising people in cars.

Otley Road, Harrogate
The world's most useless crossing, Otley Road

The Otley Road crossing near where I live has sensors that detect when cars are coming. As long as there are vehicles approaching, the lights for pedestrians stay red; only when there is no traffic are you allowed to cross. But when there's no traffic, I could cross anyway. What is the point of the crossing? It is laughable. It's a clear message from NYCC that they think that people in cars are important, and people who are walking are not.

At the Prince of Wales roundabout, if you're walking you have no crossing, and you have dodge across two lanes of traffic. It's dangerous and unpleasant.

Outside Bettys, in the heart of town, people wait an age at the crossing, before being given a few seconds to scurry across. It's embarrassing.

On zebra crossings, a new phenomenon has started up, where people crossing wave their thanks to motorists who stop. I'm all in favour of a bit of politeness, but I don't like to see this. It's as though the pedestrians are pathetically grateful that the person in the car hasn't run them over. When I'm waiting at the side of the road to cross, without the benefit of priority, I don't see any of the people driving past wave their grateful thanks to me.

If you have started crossing the road and a car appears, as often as not the driver will drive straight at you, to try to make you hurry out of the way. This is regarded as normal. Logically, though, it amounts to threatening your life with a deadly weapon. If someone came at you with a knife or a baseball bat, you'd go to the police; when it's with a car, nobody pays any attention.

The way in which we prioritise cars, to the detriment of our quality of life in the places where we live and work, and absolve drivers of responsibility, is extraordinary. It is a state of affairs that has gradually come into being over decades, so that nobody even notices or questions it.

One of the effects is that schools can't take children out onto The Stray or on other trips, without making all the children wear fluorescent gilets. The responsibility is on the kids not to get run over, not on drivers to look out for them.

5) NYCC

County Hall, Northallerton
County Hall, Northallerton

NYCC is our Highways Authority. They must be one of the most car-centric local authorities in the country. As far as NYCC are concerned, driving is the only serious way of travelling, and every other mode of transport should defer to the car.

It's pretty much impossible to discuss a cycle route with NYCC from the point of view of 'what it is like to use on a bike?' The only thing they are interested in is 'how will this affect people in cars?'

6) Vulnerable road users abandoned at junctions

One effect of this NYCC thinking is that vulnerable road users are abandoned where they need help most, for fear that people in cars might be delayed by a few seconds. So at the Sainsbury's junction on Wetherby Road, if you're walking or cycling and you want to cross, you're left to your own devices.

Quite apart from anything else, prioritising cars there is only enabling drivers to get to the next queue more quickly.

Contrast NYCC's attitude with that of Manchester's Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman. He understands that you have to look after people throughout their journeys from start to finish, so that they're never left with a busy road or a difficult junction to get across.

We know from the most recent DfT statistics that 62% of people in England agree with the statement that 'it's too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads'. The inverse isn't true - nobody was ever put off driving because they were too afraid of people riding bikes.

Driving has negative impacts on other road users. Councillors ought to acknowledge that, and commit to safe crossings of busy junctions, and creating safe and convenient routes that people can use on bikes.

7) The beauty of the local environment

Councillor Brown mentions 'enhancing the beauty of the local environment, which is also important in promoting tourism'. I agree, but something is being overlooked here. Vehicles have a negative impact on the beauty of the local environment. For example, it's pretty much impossible to take a nice photo of buildings in Harrogate without it being ruined by parked cars.

Prospect Square, Harrogate
Parked cars ruining a photo of Prospect Square, Harrogate

Prospect Square is a good example. It's lovely architecture, with the sweeping curves of Cambridge Crescent, but all your pictures will have Transit vans in them.

Besides which, if we keep on heating up the world, our countryside won't still look the same in 10 or 20 years' time as it does now. That brings me on to the next point.

8) The climate crisis

We know that we're disrupting our previously stable climate. There is a vast amount of irrefutable evidence. The problems aren't just going to come a long time in the future or in distant countries.

There were unprecedented fires on Ilkley Moor in April this year. The hottest UK temperature ever was recorded in Cambridge in July. 1,500 people died in France this summer due to the heat. Global heating is real and it is happening now.

Parliament's Science and Technology Select Committe has looked at the evidence in detail. They say that swapping to electric cars won't be enough.

'In the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation.' It's no good for people in positions of responsibility to ignore that, or disagree 'just because'. Unless there is a convincing, fact-based counter-argument - which there isn't - we have to accept the science.

The best solution is improving public transport, walking, and cycling. Perhaps not from Bishop Monkton, or not for everyone who lives there, but certainly for short journeys within the town of Harrogate.

Conclusion

I understand that it is hard to run a profitable shop in town, but the main challenges are high costs including business rates, and online competition. Parking isn't a major issue.

Where a lot of people live in a small area, the motor car isn't a good solution for making short journeys, because it's so inefficient: you take up a lot of space, usually to transport just one person; and, again for one person, you move 1 tonne around town (or 2 or 3 tonnes as is often the case in Harrogate), with the associated energy use and pollution.

Walking and cycling are better for our health, and a more enjoyable way of getting around. They reduce noise, pollution, and danger, and improve quality of life in the places where we live, work, and shop.

For the reasons set out in this article, it isn't true that the motorist is knocked or made to feel unwelcome. People in cars are given extraordinary privileges and priority, which we don't always realise or appreciate. Nor do we always understand the negative impact car travel has on others.

Rather than just accepting these negative impacts, and letting vehicles dominate everywhere, we should define some limits to the dominance of the motor car, and promote active, sustainable travel.