Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Note of Thanks to my Local MSPs.

This is just a short (and long overdue) note to thank my local MSPs, and Jim Eadie in particular, for their recent contribution to the active travel debate in the Scottish Parliament. I didn't know anything about Jim before writing to him last month, but it turns out he's well known and respected for his hard work campaigning on a range of issues, notably on the issue of people's right to walk or cycle to work and school safely. He also mentioned my blog post, which was nice! My regional MSPs Kezia Dugdale and Alison Johnstone also made really excellent, passionate speeches. You can see the transcript of the debate here.

We live in an age of cynicism about politics and politicians, and I just wanted to put on record how impressed I am with my local MSPs and how much they've done, working together across party lines, to advance causes that I care about like safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

The Scottish Parliament as a whole has been deeply disappointing in its approach to active travel. I sincerely hope my MSPs can work to encourage a more enlightened approach. So, to Jim, Kezia and Alison, well done, thanks a lot, and back to work! The final budget settlement will be soon and I'm sure we'd all love to see an increased and longer term commitment to fund active travel.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Golden Opportunity for Leith Street

Let's begin by congratulating London on the announcement that a fully segregated east-west cycle superhighway is to be built. This is a plea for Edinburgh to do the same. Great cities thrive because they bring people together, and when people come together new ideas are born. Famously, it was for the prospect of a morning walk to work with Gödel that Einstein agreed to move to Princeton. If Edinburgh is to continue to be a wonderful city as its population grows, we need to be able to move people around, to get them to interact with each other, and we need to have a serious think about how we do that.

We tried really really hard to make the car work. We tried to the extent of building sections of dual carriageway in the middle of our city, having enormous junctions, and making people wait six minutes to walk 100m. There can be no better testament to how much success our traffic engineers have had in cramming ever more cars onto our roads than our exceptionally dangerous levels of air pollution. But, despite dedicating 95% of our road space to the private motor car, cars are unable to cater to the transport needs of more than half of our population. The speed with which a transport system gets people through a town is governed by how efficiently it can get them through junctions, and space hungry, heavy cars which are slow to accelerate just don't cut it.

Fortunately, there is another way. Buses, bikes, and most of all pedestrians take up much less space on our roads and allow people to move smoothly. The compactness that makes our city so ill suited to the car should make it an ideal place to walk and cycle. And even better, our council understands this, and their Local Transport Strategy documents emphasise the bike and the pedestrian over the car. But if the current plans for Leith Street don't change, the council are set to make a historic and expensive mistake that will gridlock us for years to come. On the flip side, give us a safe segregated route through Leith Street, surely one of Edinburgh's most dangerous and intimidating places to cycle, and one of the most substantial barriers to a safe cycle network in Edinburgh will have been overcome. This will make travel faster for everyone, it will make Edinburgh healthier and happier.

I don't think that I'm unduly timid on my bike. I cycle on Nicolson street and the bridges every day, which I guess is pretty scary in anyone's book. But I just don't dare connect to Leith Walk down past John Lewis. Many aspects of the new plans for the St James Quarter are commendable, but in failing to provide any way for cyclists to get quickly and safely from through Leith Street, these plans miss a once in a generation opportunity to put safe cycle provision on a key route.

Spokes have written an excellent response to the plans for the St James' Quarter, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Please consider this as my response to the consultation on the plans.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On 20mph

Let me start this with three made up quotes.

1) (Early 2008:) We haven't had a financial crash for nearly twenty years so obviously our system of bank regulation is working.

2) Lots of Edinburgh's roads haven't had any car crashes reported to the police in the last ten years, and so must be pretty safe.

3) Drink driving should be banned, but only for people who have proved that they're dangerous drink drivers by killing someone already.

The first 'quote' could have been said by any number of our politicians just before the crash, the second is pretty reflective of a lot of arguments about road safety, and the third is hopefully pretty absurd to anyone who reads it. But they all reflect the same lack of understanding about rare events and small sets of data.

Now one of the things you learn pretty quickly when starting a career as a mathematician is that nobody likes it when you start talking about numbers at a party. Even really exciting things like this, or the fact that my new phone number is prime. But numbers are important, and sometimes you need to talk about them. There are lots of other important things too of course, like newspapers and road safety. So I thought I'd write a post about all of these things.

In particular, I'd like to talk about the Edinburgh Evening News's latest line that it has no problem with the speed reduction in principle, but that it should be restricted to roads where it will 'improve safety'. Neil Grieg, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, is quoted as saying

“When Lesley Hinds and the council talk about 20mph limits, they always talk about road safety, so you would expect that one of their key ­criteria and one of their key measures of success would have to be accidents. I’m surprised they have not taken accident rates into ­account. It seems to be quite a serious omission. They should have taken crash history into account, but the problem was they were going for this blanket approach. And when you start to have this blanket approach, you are going to have 20mph limits on streets that are perfectly safe to drive at 28mph or 27mph.”

Well Neil, you shouldn't be surprised. The issue here is that you've assumed that if a road hasn't had any accidents in the last ten years then its safe. Forgive me talking maths, but what you've done is that you've failed to understand the statistics of rare events. Let me have a go at explaining.

The chance that some particular car driving down a small road in Edinburgh at 30mph will hit someone is really extremely small. It's so small in fact that some roads like Livingstone place (just next to cafe Victor Hugo) haven't had any accidents in the last ten years. But there are lots of cars which do lots of driving down lots of roads in Edinburgh, and so collectively Edinburgh's small roads host a huge number of accidents. Indeed, the road next to Livingstone place, Gladstone terrace, did have an accident in 2010 when a car hit a child. There's no real difference between Livingstone place and Gladstone terrace, it's just a quirk of small numbers. Of course, this accident was far more than a piece of data to the human beings involved.

So what the council did was to to stop fixating on the small, inadequate data, and look at the big picture. And fortunately here we have lots of data! You might like to read this review of the evidence, which shows that 'Twenty mile per hour zones and limits are effective means of improving public health via reduced accidents and injuries.' And while you're at it, you could read what Leslie Hinds and SRD have to say. And then you'd probably conclude that the council have implemented a bold, visionary policy to improve the safety and lives of their citizens, and become almost as much of a fan of the new 20mph zones as I am!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Letter from Thessaloniki

At first glance, Thessaloniki seems to fit an easy narrative. One-time beautiful, bustling multicultural Ottoman port ravaged by earthquake, fire and war, victim to population exchange and holocaust, rebuilt by people who think that boulevards jammed with six lanes of motor traffic represent the best of classical beauty, and liberally sprinkled with statues of famous residents of yesteryear that root locals' sense of civic pride in the city's history rather than its future.

Of course such an assessment would always have been unfair. Thessaloniki is an exciting place, it's something of a Mecca for shoppers and clubbers (I'm told) and there are lots of nice restaurants and museums. It's just that being an exciting place isn't necessarily the same as being a nice place. In the many conversations that Aspa and I have had about places that we'd like to live, Thessaloniki never got close – exciting perhaps, but unlivable.

On my first visit it struck me as a place despoiled by the motor car, where beautiful squares are crisscrossed by busy roads and where getting anywhere involved inching along at a glacial pace in a bus or a car, or walking in hot and polluted streets having to stop every thirty seconds to yield to the near stationary traffic. That was summer 2010, and I've been back three times since, usually just for two or three days at the end of a holiday.

The great thing about visiting a place every two years is that you notice the changes. And Thessaloniki is getting better, really amazingly better. The program Thessaloniki 2012, launched to celebrate 100 years since Thessaloniki was incorporated into Greece, sought to reimagine the city, to make more of its potential. You can read about it on the wikipedia page or, if you have an ever patient partner who speaks Greek and is willing to translate, on these slides

Streets are being pedestrianised, several small army barracks being turned into city parks, and bollards are being erected to protect pavements from parked cars. People love it. Even before the surface has been laid, you can see throngs of shoppers on this newly pedestrianised street.
Not only are there more people here, but they're more relaxed, they walk slower, they look in the shops and they sit in cafes.

The jewel in the crown though is the renovated paralia. Stretching 5.5km, this wide uninterrupted path runs right along the sea shore giving great views of the city and, on a clear day, out as far as mount Olympus far across the bay. Thirteen parks have been created and three thousand trees planted. There's even a long, wide, segregated bike path running through it. At one end a renovated port houses bars, a contemporary art museum and a port museum. It's just superb.

Of course not everything is fixed. Just as in Edinburgh, if you don't protect bike lanes with bollards or enforce parking restrictions then bike lanes become car parks. And having five lanes of traffic running through the middle of your city is always going to be unpleasant. Central parts of the Paralia are not wide enough, and as far as I know there's no news yet on whether the original plan to remove cars entirely from the central stretch of the sea front will be implemented. But Thessaloniki 2012 is a fifteen year program, and four years in (it started in 2010) things are looking pretty good. The mayor, who has done a lot of good things besides city planning, has been nominated for World Mayor 2014.

So is there a moral to the story? Well what Thessaloniki did was to hire some architects and city planners to produce a report into how one could make Thessaloniki fit for people, a place that people want to linger in. Then they began to implement the plan and are reaping the rewards. 

My city, Edinburgh, also commissioned international architects to look at how to make it a livable place. These architects also produced a report. The council have accepted the spirit of the report, and made quite a few positive changes, but there's still a vast gulf between what the report envisaged and what the council have done. Let's hope the Gehl report is implemented fully, Edinburgh reaps the rewards, and we can be celebrating Andrew Burns being nominated World Mayor 2015...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Funny Old Dream

I had a funny dream last night. I must have eaten too many mince pies or something.

It started with lots of people writing to their MSPs about what more spending on active travel would mean for them. Letters and emails from the 30% of children who want to cycle to school but can't because the conditions aren't right, from the adults who want to get fitter but find the roads too intimidating to walk or cycle, from the health professionals who are tired of treating the effects of too little exercise on a population whose towns and cities are laid out in a way to discourage them from traveling anywhere on their own two feet.

And my MSP, Jim Eadie, took up the cause, and told parliament about the great things that Edinburgh city council would do for active travel if they could get partial funding from the Scottish government. He told them about proposed links from Haymarket to the segregated cycle lane on George street that would make it possible for people arriving by train to do the last part of their commute by bike. He told them about the proposal to link the other end of George street to the bike lane on Leith Walk, making a continuous link from Haymarket down to the foot of the walk possible. And he told them about things that are already in motion in Edinburgh, such as family friendly routes from the canal to the meadows, and then on to the old Innocent railway path. MSPs from Glasgow chipped in to say that their local council has a commendable strategy for local transport that won't go anywhere without matched funding.

Some questioned whether it could be right to spend money on luxuries such as active travel when the NHS is in crisis, but my MSP replied that, as every good doctor knows, it's better to treat a cause than a symptom, and that inactivity is costing the Scottish NHS 94 million per year. Some argued that Scotland does not have the money to spend, but my MSP pointed out that the money being on one road project alone could be used to provide 10 pounds per head spending on active travel for the next sixty years! This isn't about the money available to Holyrood, it's about the choices that Holyrood makes. He showed them the Department for Transport statistics that show a 5.5 to 1 return on investment for building cycle lanes. Some argued that the responsibility lay not with the Scottish parliament but with Westminster, my MSP explained that transport was a devolved issue, and that, despite fine visions and soaring rhetoric, the current Scottish government finds its policies on active travel less progressive than those of Edinburgh city council, less progressive than those of Boris Johnson, less progressive than those of Westminster, less progressive even than those of The Times of London. He said that people love it when the SNP promises a greener, healthier Scotland, but that it needs to back up its promises with action.

And so, remarkably, the Scottish parliament pledged not only to properly fund investment in infrastructure for active travel for Scotland this year, but guaranteed that this funding would be maintained in the years to come. And councils were able to make long term plans, safe in the knowledge that money for investment in cycle lanes would be significant and sustained, and a great network of cycle lanes was built throughout the land.

Now this is where the dream started to get interesting. Because cycle lanes make the roads less intimidating for all users, the number of pedestrians increased dramatically. The roads became safer for everyone. And since bikes and buses no longer slowed each other down, bus journey times decreased, and congestion decreased for all road users, and so the air pollution levels in Scotland, which kill 2000 people a year, began to decrease. Bike lanes even made journey times shorter for car drivers.

Local shops found that, for the first time in a generation, it really was possible for large numbers of shoppers to get quickly and conveniently to the centre of town, and just as is happening on George street which has seen footfall up 9% since the bike lane was installed, sales grew. And so our city centres beat off the challenge of out of town shopping and internet sales, because they had once again become pleasant places to spend time and money.

And so the politicians were lauded for having taken such a simple, effective and astonishingly cheap step to build a better Scotland. Scotland was greener, happier and healthier, and my MSP was reelected with a large majority.

Anyway, funny old dream it was. I must have eaten too many mince pies or something.