Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Problematic policies

It's back to school! Well, a week tomorrow anyway. (Early, I know, but that's what you get for going to an independent school.) So the school has emailed out all the documents necessary for the start of term, and one of them - intriguingly - is titled 'Bicycle policy'!
     Let me share a little with you:

There are many positive reasons for encouraging the safe use of a bike to get to and from school. There are, however, crucial safety concerns which must be addressed in order for a pupil to use their bike for their school journey.

     Not a good start.
     There are safety concerns about many forms of transport, especially motor vehicles, which are the typical form of school transport in the UK. In 2004, 1.2 million deaths were attributed to motor vehicles. The fact that safety concerns for other forms of transport are not mentioned in any documents sent out does not bode well.

1. Parents / Guardians must complete a Cycling Permit giving permission for their son/daughter to cycle to school.
2. All pupils must ensure the bicycle is in good working order, well maintained and the correct size. The school strongly recommends that bikes should cost no more than £200 and that parents/guardians  should keep the receipt, model, make details and frame number.
3. The bike must have front and rear lights, flashing or steady and must also be fitted with a red rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors.
4. Parents/Guardians must provide a named cycle helmet and encourage their child to wear bright and or reflective clothing on the journey.
5. Parents/Guardians must provide a sturdy lock to secure the bicycle at school.
6. Note that all bicycles and helmets are brought and stored on school grounds at the owners’ risk. The school is not responsible for bicycles brought on to or left on school premises and is therefore not liable for pupils’ bicycles being stolen or damaged by a third party.
7. Housemasters will notify parents/guardians if their son/daughter does not adhere to the school bicycle policy and permission to ride will be withdrawn until the issues identified have been satisfactorily addressed.

     What.

     That is almost half a page of conditions to be met before pupils are even allowed to cycle to school.
It seems that a lot of the conditions are redundant (the bike has to be 'in good working order' and 'well-maintained', but surely if it is not one it is not the other) or unnecessary (all bikes in the UK must have reflectors to be determined legal, and lights are also a legal requirement for riding in the dark). But as for the helmet, surely that is for the family to decide? Helmets have not conclusively been proven to have a specific impact on most cycling-related injuries, and many children simply wear helmets because of their parents' fears.
     Also horrific is the idea that failure to comply with the policy will result in 'the permission to ride being withdrawn'. If cycling is a pupil's way of getting to school, then withdrawing that is surely unfair and of questionable legality. It is akin to forcing parents to pay for their children to use the school bus rather than the public bus network, which is a lot cheaper and more convenient. Cycling is portrayed not as a right or a true transport choice, but as a privilege - one that can be revoked.
     If the school really wants to encourage cycle use as a mode of transport, perhaps it could start by properly treating it as one, instead of essentially patting it on the head and telling it to hush.

  • A safety helmet and reflective/fluorescent clothing must be worn where appropriate.
  • Cycling within the school grounds is not allowed (including the main gateway and entrance).
  • No fixed wheel bicycles will be allowed.
  • While cycling you must behave in a manner which shows you and the school in the best possible light and consider the needs of others when cycling.
  • Your bike must be kept in good working order.
  • Keep your bike secure: bikes must be locked in the allocated bike shed beside Catering.
  • Know the rules of the road e.g. one-way only streets, stopping at zebra crossings and red lights.
  • Do not ride on pavements: dismount and walk.
  • You will not be allowed to ride to and from school if you do not follow this policy.
     These are 'rules and guidelines', but as evidenced by the last bullet point they are just as much conditions as the previous seven.
     The school is ridiculously prescriptive in what is an 'allowed' bike. It must be in good working order and well-maintained, the correct size - presumably exactly so - must be kitted out with lights even if it is not to be ridden in the dark, and cannot be a fixie. What a mystery that there are not such restrictive conditions for the motor vehicles pupils might be driven into school in.
     Again, legal requirements are presented unnecessarily - and in the case of pavement riding, possibly incorrectly, for it is considered acceptable for children to ride on pavements if they do not feel safe. And indeed many of the roads around the school feel dangerous. Although in a predominantly residential neighbourhood there is heavy traffic on several routes which are also the most desirable routes to cycle. The UK already has a problem with forcing cyclists to choose between pavement cycling (slow and inconvenient) and vehicular cycling (strenuous and feels dangerous) - that the school is removing one of the two options is worse. And are pupils not allowed to use shared-use pavements, even when they are the only infrastructure provided to avoid, say, a gyratory or a dual carriageway?
     It is also annoying that cycling in the school is restricted. It is a lot more convenient to cycle through the gate all the way to the bike shed than to dismount and walk 100m or so, especially when you are presumably laden with schoolbags and possibly late for the morning register. The storage restrictions are quite hypocritical, because I know for a fact that at least two teachers store their bikes in their classrooms and a third leaves his by the railings outside the DT building. The bike shed is in one corner of the school site, problematic especially for the boys' house situated almost exactly on the opposite corner, and is normally almost full. (Unfortunately, most evidence suggests that these cyclists are maintenance or catering workers.)
     The policy then goes on to mention marking and registration schemes in great detail, which is odd for a bike that is supposed to be cheap, and finally is this gem:



To become a more proficient cyclist, Bikeability training is available at 3 levels at:
East Sussex County council: cycletraining@eastsussex.gov.uk


     Oh, no, you couldn't expect the school to provide Bikeability training. You are to contact the council and arrange (and likely pay for) sessions all on your own.
     The worst thing is that I feel somewhat responsible for all of this. At the last school council meeting of last school year, I raised the suggestion that cycling to school be encouraged more, perhaps with the inclusion of Bikeability training for those who currently feel uncertain about cycling. And the school has decided to do so.
     Hopefully, next time they try they could actually put some effort into it.
     This is not encouraging pupils to cycle. What parent would want to go through all that fuss when they could just pay for a yearly bus pass and stick their child on a bus without worrying whether it is well-maintained or if it cost less than £200? And indeed that is what a large number of parents do. All of my friends who live within two miles of the school get the bus, with the exception of two who live literally one block away from the front gates. Which is interesting, because the aforementioned traffic means that cycling is faster. But policies like these make cycling inconvenient, at least compared to other transport modes, and so the parents choose a mode that is convenient and feels more supported by the school.
     This is the result of a half-hearted attempt to encourage cycling without actually providing for it or making it more convenient. As the threat to remove 'permission to ride' shows, cycling is not viewed as a transport mode in its own right but instead as something for kids to do instead of getting the bus or being driven in. And so, much like a school trip, innumerable conditions are attached to absolve the school from any image problems should something go wrong. If a child is hit by a car on their way to school, the school can point their finger and say, 'He wasn't wearing a helmet. We did not say he could ride; he was breaking the rules.' It is yet another form of the victim blaming which has become endemic in the light of collisions between motor vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists.
     The school run could look like this, if only they would actually try to get people to stop using motor vehicles:
     






Photo credit to Hembrow Cycling Holidays.


     A small post-script of things I couldn't quite work in satisfactorily: I do wonder how the school intends to enforce some of these rules. Are the housemasters meant to go to the bike shed during their lunch break and check that the bikes are well-maintained? And it would certainly be more encouraging if the school would illuminate on those 'many positive reasons' for cycling, especially since they are so concrete about the conditions. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Holmbush hijinks

My mother and I do our weekly food shopping at the Tesco at the Holmbush Centre, near us in Shoreham-by-Sea. This is very close to where we live and by all means we should be able to go there on foot. Yet whenever we go there together, we drive, even though this takes about two minutes at the most. One reason for this is that access to the Centre is via the Holmbush Roundabout.

Clockwise from the top, the roundabout connects the access road to the shopping centre, the A270 Old Shoreham Road towards Brighton, a residential street, the Upper Shoreham Road, and the A27 dual carriageway bypassing the town. For many years the roundabout was not marked with lanes. However, about a year ago the council decided it was high time the roundabout was painted. The resulting lanes are ridiculous. There are only two, except where there are three; they do not spiral as you expect and instead require you to change lanes at gaps where the line dividing the lanes does not exist; they make horrid work of the available space, to the point where large areas have been hatched off; and the destinations are poorly signed. One lane declares it leads to the TOWN CENTRE, but the centre of which town is not clarified - quite important, considering that this roundabout is almost directly on the boundary between Shoreham and Southwick. Another lane is for the S'PER ST'RE, although as it is split over two lines SUPER STORE would have easily fit. (Incidentally, one of these markings is instead S'PER S'TRE - presumably for the supersotre.)

The roundabout could adequately be described as 'evidence of satanic interference in human affairs', with frequent near-misses and a worryingly high rate of collisions, often in the form of people realising they are in the wrong lane and trying to get off the roundabout anyway. It is an extremely unpleasant place to be driving.

And it is even worse when you aren't.

There is a narrow and poor-quality cyclepath, along with a footpath, leading from the Upper Shoreham Road across the residential street, up to a two-stage puffin crossing over the A270 (cyclists are expected to dismount), which dumps potential shoppers onto what the Dutch call a 'service street', opposite the swimming pool. On foot, you can here either cut through the swimming pool car park or follow the pavement along the service street, but either way, you end up on a narrow pavement that snakes it way around another roundabout and a 'stretchabout', over a zebra crossing, and then up the covered strip for pedestrians all the way up to the central hub. Cyclists have the additional and exciting option of going up the service street, ignoring the compulsory turn-left sign and accessing what is signed as a cycle-only section, turning right onto a busy road and then navigating both the petrol-station roundabout and the stretchabout. When you arrive, there is minimal cycle parking (and what there is seems to be provided by Tesco - M&S evidently does not cater to cyclists).

This is considered adequate infrastructure, and indeed is the route signposted from the south side of the main roundabout.

It is often said by cycle campaigners that dangerous behaviour is encouraged by poor infra which forces people to choose between safe and convenient. There is no better evidence for this than the few cyclists who choose to navigate Holmbush Roundabout itself (despite a 40mph speed limit among predominantly 30mph roads - a holdover from when the A270 had yet to be bypassed by the modern A27) or the occasional pedestrian who can be seen standing with a bewildered expression on the large central island, a place which they are technically barred from but which seems to be the fastest and/or the only sensible route to the shopping centre. Nobody in their right mind would willingly choose these routes, but the infrastructure is so bad that they are seen as legitimate, competing options.

And it is abhorrent that this monster is allowed to remain in place, when just metres away is National Cycle Route 2, which has recently been outfitted with a shiny new shared-use bridge.

All too often in the UK funding for cycle infrastructure is spent on vanity projects which look good as photos or press releases, persuading people that Things Are Being Done. In Shoreham the Adur Ferry Bridge is just another example of wallpaper over the cracks. Cycling is never going to be seen as a viable mode of transport if people can't even comfortably use it to go to the shops.

(The only decent thing about the Holmbush Roundabout is that it features an example of a cycleway bypassing a bus stop, and even that's pretty crap.)