Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The "Taw Vale" Case

Britain is a country with lots of good intentions. Government bodies, companies, organisations and individuals all say they want to reduce their carbon footprint. Shouldn’t we all walk and cycle more or use public transport, rather than just hitting the road with that extremely convenient, but so polluting metal box on wheels? It is easier said than done. The reality is that many of Britain’s roads are narrow and worn out, barely able to cope with an ever increasing level of motorised use. This road network also somehow has to cater for sustainable means of travel, but in reality cycling, walking and good public transport is only accepted as long as it is not in the driver’s way.

Rarely, something wonderful happens. In 2007 the Barnstaple Western By-pass opened, freeing a pleasant North Devon market town from an everlasting gridlock of exhaust fumes, traffic noise and endless delays. The new by-pass also meant that road capacity in the town suddenly became available to create some good sustainable transport links. The Square, The Strand and Taw Vale were effectively “reclaimed” from motorised traffic. Together, they became a truly high quality curso de SQL sustainable transport corridor. 

Six years on, this route is really living up to its expectations. The number of cyclists using the route for commuting is rising by the day and the Park & Ride facility, from where delay-free buses run to the town centre on the same route, is increasing in popularity too. Its car park is often jam-packed! Last but not least, this pleasant riverside route has become a place where people relax and enjoy. At the same time, there is also a good alternative for visitors still intending to travel to the town centre by car. Those at Devon County Council who came up with this strategy should be applauded for their vision and courage to implement it; it just ticks all the boxes, making everybody happy!

Everybody? We already know that cycling, walking and good public transport in the UK seems only to be able to exist with the goodwill of drivers. Unfortunately, this turns out to be true once again. As the number of drivers travelling to Barnstaple town centre during rush hours slightly exceeds the capacity of the purpose built “Inner Relief Route”, the call to reclaim “Taw Vale” for motorised traffic is getting stronger. Drivers regularly experience a 5-10 minute delay! 

Rather than for once reconsidering their own means of transport, it is easier to press local councillors to plead at their county council to legalise a left turn from Taw Vale at “The Square”, now only open for buses, taxis and cyclists. It is a move which will increase the traffic flow on Taw Vale and neighbouring Victoria Road considerably. It also will create a rat run route, with the only purpose to filter in to the same main motorised traffic flow further up in town, likely to cause new delays.

You could be indifferent to do this and let it happen, but by the time these motorists will get to their newly created queue at “The Square”, the damage will already have been done. Ladies with baskets on their bikes, parents with children and all those new cycling commuters, currently happily cycling on the road in front of the Park Hotel between Barnstaple town centre and Newport, will feel exposed once again to the mercy of fast moving metal boxes. As we should know by now, it is just not pleasant to cycle in such traffic conditions. In fact, it is the biggest emotional barrier for people in the UK to take up cycling!  It is very likely many will give up their new-found sustainable means of transport because of this unpleasant environment. The opportunity lost and yes; those traffic delays will just grow more as a result!

To understand the importance of Taw Vale and Victoria Road for local sustainable transport you have to know that a popular walking and cycling route from the Newport and Whiddon Valley suburbs ends on Victoria Road (“Hollowtree Route”). Where this path joins Victoria Road, cyclists have to complete a ¼ mile on-road journey to reach the town centre area and the Taw Vale Riverside cycle path. This route is direct and with the current conditions, reasonably traffic-calmed, both essential ingredients to make the Hollowtree Route work.

Victoria Road can still get busy at times though and many new cyclists travelling from the town centre still find it difficult to perform a correct right turn from Victoria Road onto the cycle route. They do it (bless them!), although they could learn some skills from 10-11 year olds who do this type of turns as part of their Bikeability test. 

An increase of traffic by opening the junction at The Square (see picture on right) will make Victoria Road a truly unpleasant environment for cycling though, not only putting off all those new well intending adults, but also all those freshly trained young people. Drivers who say that “there are plenty of places where cyclists can go” should think again. To make a real journey from A to B you need more than the Tarka Trail and there are often very limited options for those who don’t want to be exposed to serious traffic. For the cycling travel corridor Whiddon Valley-Newport-Town Centre the Victoria Road/Taw Vale link is essential; there is just no other suitable route!

Also Newport Road, Newport’s “High Street” (picture on left) which also feeds onto Taw Vale/Victoria Road is currently just about acceptable for many of the new cyclists, making “shared space” policies work. The “opening” of the left turn from Taw Vale at “The Square” will make this road an attractive rat run route for drivers though, reducing more road space where cyclists currently feel “tolerated”. 

You only have to visit Newport’s South Street at rush hour (just around the corner, see picture on right) to see what Newport’s “High Street” can expect. Why is it that people want to create more horrible road conditions like this, especially after so much effort has been made to get rid of them? Funnily enough, those responsible for these decisions never seem to live on roads with these conditions, but on pleasant cul-du-sacs, well away from noise and pollution.

An often heard argument is that businesses need “through traffic” for their footfall, but does anyone with a sane mind think that by creating another “South Street”, businesses on Newport Road will actually thrive? The reality is that with increased traffic flow, the opportunities to actually visit a High Street shop by car are very minimal; there is just no space to park! Recent research shows that footfall of shops caused by “through drivers” often gets greatly exaggerated (by as much as 400%). It is one of those myths that refuses to die. The reality is that in many places, shop’s footfall actually increases with better access for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, as it generally comes with a more pleasant shopping environment to be in, attracting more custom!

The importance of low traffic intensity traffic-calmed Taw Vale is also the key to the success of the Barnstaple Park & Ride facility. The current bus service to the town centre is reliable and fast, as the whole of Taw Vale functions as a (nearly) traffic-free bus lane. Its popularity will shrink if travel times of the bus service double, as buses will have to join queuing cars at “The Square” junction. In brief, by changing the current arrangements, two unpleasant routes of heavy traffic will be created (which have to merge into one at The Square), ruining the only sustainable traffic corridor available; madness!

But there is more at stake than just local transport links. The current Taw Vale route is exemplary for a country that seeks ways to adapt to a more sustainable lifestyle. The current success of Taw Vale shows what the results can be if road space gets truly reclaimed from motorised traffic. Barnstaple’s “Square” used to be traffic mayhem, but it is now a great open space where a community comes together, celebrating a healthy outdoor life style. It is an image which reaches much further than you might think.

For example, my own cycling holiday company features a picture of happy Taw Vale cyclists on its promotion materials, putting North Devon on the map as an international cycling destination. Forches Post Office staff can tell about the number of cycling guidebooks I dispatch from their branch for delivery worldwide and it is only going to be more. Also beyond my own efforts, Barnstaple is getting nationally known in cycling circles because of its Tarka Trail and Devon Coast to Coast route, bringing new business to the town. People want to adapt to more sustainable lifestyles and Barnstaple proves it is possible, not only to visitors, but also to its own residents. The Tarka Trail and the Western By-pass have both put Barnstaple in a primary position and sustainable links as Taw Vale/Victoria Road are essential to make sustainable transport a truly viable option.

Rather than making attempts to destroy it, Barnstaple Town Council should make efforts to make more similar traffic-calmed sustainable travel routes between the town centre/Tarka Trail and its suburbs. For residents in areas like Gorwell, Forches, Pilton, Bickington and Bishop’s Tawton access to “cycle routes for all” is “challenging” at best. There are many people out there who would choose for sustainable means of transport if there was indeed a viable alternative way to get to the town centre. I am sure the current 5-10 minute traffic delays would completely cease if such routes were created.

Come on Barnstaple! You are so close to being an exemplary UK sustainable travel town; don’t get distracted and keep looking forward! Don’t return to those motorised policies which ruled this country for over five decades; we all know what kind of society it created! Do we want to live in a world ruled by cars or not? That is the real question when talking opening up “Taw Vale” to motorised traffic. I hope Devon County Council will give a different answer to this question than Barnstaple Town Council currently does!

Eric van der Horst

Independent Cycle Route Consultant and Barnstaple resident

Note: Devon County Council has dismissed the request by Barnstaple Town Council to reopen Taw Vale, reason being that it would increase motorised traffic in the town centre as a whole. Although this is good news, this reasoning doesn't take into consideration the fact that Taw Vale is an important sustainable transport corridor. This shows how councils and highway agencies in Britain still act with mostly motorised traffic flows in mind, rather than taking ALL means of transport into account. The Taw Vale issue has resulted in the set up of a North Devon Cycling Forum to build cycling awareness in the area. Summer 2014, we published a 64-page study, presenting a five year plan regarding cycling infrastructure in the town. 

Some emails to the author in reply to this article (email addresses known to author):

* Thanks for raising awareness about this ridiculous about-face of policy. I am against changing the current traffic arrangements for Taw Vale. I'll be writing to my councillors.

With best wishes

Michele R Taborn, Barnstaple

* Very well done on raising the profile of this important issue. While I am not a local resident I have greatly enjoyed the Taw Vale cycle way on several occasions while holidaying by bike with my wife. Please add my voice to those that think it should be wholeheartedly supported rather than lost for such limited and questionable benefit to motorists. I always enjoy your blog, please keep it up!

Best wishes

Mike Hutchings, Horsham, West Sussex

* Thanks for the heads-up on the proposed changes to traffic arrangments in the Taw valley, Barnstaple. As a regular cyclist in Barnstaple I am against any changes to these regulations as they will negatively affect the local environment, ignoring the need to encourage car drivers to find other ways of getting into town. Cycle ways allow safe and enjoyable cycling. Barnstaple has a good network of cycle routes and an excellent park and drive scheme already, and I see this as a retrograde step in the transport policy of the area that will discourage the use of alternative transport.

Graeme Willgress, Okehampton 

I use this route everyday and agree that it would be a retrograde step to put traffic back onto Taw Vale at the volumes they were before the new bridge was built. Taw Vale is an essential part of the mostly traffic free riverside walk that runs from Pottington industrial estate, along the Strand and out to Rock Park and Bishops Tawton, where I live. I will certainly write to object, but could you let me have a link to the town council proposal, so that I can see it in full

Many thanks,

Pete Leaver, Barnstaple

* I am against changing the current traffic arrangements for Taw Vale

Katja Leyendecker, Newcastle

* I'm a member of Sustrans in Barnstaple and I was not aware of this plan.  Thank you for telling me.  I fully support your stance and I am against changing the current traffic arrangements for Taw Vale.

Bob Smith, Barnstaple

* Many thanks for your latest blog about this appalling possibility. I am appalled that Barnstaple Town Council could have voted for opening the left turn on to Victoria Road to motor traffic.
This seems to me a wholly retrograde step. It is central Government and 
Devon County policy to encourage sustainable transport modes  walking & cycling as means of transport. This is for several reasons:
- They reduce pollution from motor traffic – CO2 a greenhouse gas largely responsible for climate change and NO2 which is just now being identified by the NHS as a potent cause of asthma & other respiratory diseases, especially in children.
- Greater use of walking & cycling for transport will mean fewer people, especially children, leading a sedentary lifestyle. Not being active leads to being overweight or obese which is closely linked with diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. The NHS has called this “an epidemic” which it estimates will cost £20bn by the year 2020. The Public Health Authority, imminently to be merged into Devon County Council, is extremely concerned.
Increasing the numbers of people walking & cycling for transport, i.e. for fairly short trips which make up a big proportion of the congestion in built-up areas, will reduce that congestion. This effect is well documented in The Netherlands.
Making it easier, pleasanter and safer to walk or ride will allow children to be more independent, i.e. to walk/ride to school, to get out to the shops, to go and see friends without having to be ‘taxied’ by parents. This improves their mental health, particularly self esteem,
and allows them to socialise on the way to & from school. It frees parents to get to work, and to have more time for themselves & th rest of the family.
I therefore urge Barnstaple Town Council strenuously to reconsider your request to DCC on this matter.

Yours Faithfully, Julian Burn, Totnes

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