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Sustainability, Transport & Local Traffic

Sustainability, Transport & Local Traffic

The road to sustainability will be a hard and at times tempestuous one. There is the big picture that reveals the depth and breadth of the ecological crisis ahead, one that may well cause severe economic disruption and social dislocation. Fuel prices, for example, seem set to rise and rise again. There are growing concerns about future supply of food, water and many other resources. Yet, at ground level, there is a deep disconnection from these realities.[i]

All sorts of reasons, from inconvenience to short-term costs, lead private individuals and public officials as well as businesses and other organisations to oppose the measures needed to make society more sustainable. On narrow, short-term grounds, they may sometimes have a valid point. Indeed, many people have got used to the way we live today and refuse to see the need for large-scale changes in both public policies and private lifestyles. Nonetheless, the cumulative consequence of such stances will make dig society into an ever more dangerous hole, from which it will be correspondingly harder to escape. 

Current transport policy is a typical example. It is grossly unsustainable yet society continues to build more roads, expand airports, and indulge in boondoggles such as HS2. All come at the expense of the genuinely sustainable options, many of which will not only save resources and cut pollution but are also more cost effective even by conventional accounting. The Green option is for the common good but many individuals think purely in terms of a threat to their own personal preferences.

Snarl-up

The current controversy over traffic management in central Gosforth, to the north of Newcastle, illustrates all these dilemmas. If you have travelled along Gosforth High Street recently, you will have seen posters advertising STURR. It is essentially a faction of local residents at the south end of the High Street who have the money to wage a high profile campaign against the Council’s traffic management plan for the area, especially the proposed ‘red route’.[ii]

Although council proposals are far from ideal, some of them are a small step in the right direction. The Green Party calls upon local residents and councillors to reject the siren song of STURR. The council officers responsible for the scheme seem open to constructive criticism but STURR’s campaign is a barrier to positive action. They have engaged in scare-mongering and have managed to rally many to their side The Green Party believe that every effort should be made to improve, not throw out, council plans.

The Green Party queries, for example, whether it is worth spending all that money to alter the Salter’s Road, Church Road and High Street junction. There might be a case ‘decoupling’ that particular proposal from the rest of the plan and debating separately its merits. That said, the current crossing routes and times are particularly risky for pedestrians, especially at the bottom of Salter’s Road. The status quo is not a safe option.

We certainly need to listen to the voices of both cyclists and those on foot about possible new risks inherent in other parts of the plan. There certainly do seem to be real dangers in any plan where cyclists have to cross over lanes. Safety of cyclists and pedestrians is not so much a matter of ‘accidents’ but rather one of collisions that are made all the more likely to happen because of bad traffic management.

Perhaps it might be possible to keep open for longer periods the car park on top of the shopping centre. Otherwise the loss of the car park opposite the Gosforth Hotel, if the junction realignment goes ahead could cause some serious short-term problems. The creation of some car parking on parts of the High Street where none now exists would, however, contradict serious moves to improve bus services, and increase pedestrian safety. Such issues can be intelligently debated. Instead, STURR has indulged in wild rhetoric about the ruining of the High Street.

We Greens want more radical action over speed limits, safe cycling, pedestrianisation, more frequent and longer crossing times for pedestrians, play streets and much better public transport. Indeed, it is time to start planning now for the critical long-term challenges ahead, such as the decline of cheap oil and adverse climate change. It is particularly foolish to think that the age of mass private motoring can be long sustained.[iii] Beyond this change of direction on transport, we want policies to encourage ‘localisation’, more localised shopping and other facilities, ones accessible without a long drive. Local access, not long journeys, is the way forward.[iv]

STURR claims it is campaigning for the local community and for local shops. Its petition has attracted a lot of support. However the only valid figures are those that count not just locals but also all those who travel through the area. It also seems to think that one person sat in a car is somehow more important than one cyclist or one pedestrian, let alone a lot of people sat on a bus.

Perhaps the presentation of different options for future traffic management may have muddied the waters. Furthermore, decision-making driven by the sudden availability of little pots of spending money is also not a good system. Ultimately, however, it is a political question, one of values, goals and priorities. The case for ‘car-taming’ on the High Street and elsewhere is valid for many sound reasons. For example:

  • The overriding task to build a really good public transport system, one that encourages people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.
  • The gains in terms of reduced pollution, reduced congestion, increased safety and a generally more attractive environment far outweigh any costs.
  • Far more people will benefit from fast, reliable bus services than from a few extra parking bays.
  • Red routes also reduce the visibility problems caused by parked vehicles and they resulting hazards they cause for both cyclists and pedestrians. The current system simply does not work.
  • Cycle lanes are near worthless if parked cars routinely block them. Cyclists need to be safe and feel safe.
  • The red route designation is the only practicable way to stop illegal parking. Double yellow lines alone are insufficient. They cannot stop the congestion caused by a constant stream of drivers stopping for short periods. Furthermore the actual operation of the proposed Red Route would be far less draconian than STURR is suggesting.
  • Independent local shops are most threatened by Internet shopping, big shopping malls and the big chains. Revealingly, the local private businesses that have managed to sustain themselves on Gosforth High Street have done so not because of parking at their door but because they own their properties. The real problem, then, is the unsustainably high cost of running a business. It is high time to look again at rent controls.
  • A safe and attractive environment is, however, one thing that does attract shoppers and customers for pubs, cafes and restaurants. Currently the High Street is, too often, noisy, congested and polluted. Indeed more and more evidence is emerging of the endangering of our health by car exhaust fumes, though, sometimes, the evidence and its implications are simply ignored by the three main parties.
  • Over 50% of shoppers in Gosforth come on foot or by bus and cycle. There is plenty of car parking on top of the shopping centre and behind the old Post Office. On Shields Road, 45% of trade is from bus passengers. The bias towards the car is the result of political policy. It is not inevitable and can be changed.
  • There is no God-given right to have parking facilities on one’s doorstep. The ‘right to park’ is not some fundamental freedom. It is demeaning to talk as if it were. Life in an inner suburb like Gosforth offers many advantages such as nearness to good schools, health facilities and much more. It is impossible to cater for every wish. Basic and urgent needs such as good public transport, with encouragement of environmentally friendly and healthy options such as cycling and walking, must come first.
  • We need more pedestrianised and attractively landscaped ‘civic’ spaces in areas such as an expanded ‘Trinity Square’ in the central part of the High Street.

Good plans cannot be based on some weak compromise between competing interests, as if all demands from everyone were of equal value. It is not possible to please everyone when it comes to a finite space such as Gosforth High Street. Something has to give. Alternatives have to be based on the long-term common good. Bodies such as SUSTRANS have documented the dangers of current road management systems, one that lobbies like STURR seeks to perpetuate. SUSTRANS and others have shown that there are far better alternatives, ones that need not cost the Earth.[v]

To be fair, some residents along the High Street will suffer some inconvenience if the red route goes through. It would be reasonable to take special measures to help them if, at all, possible. But that is sometimes the unavoidable price of changes that will benefit the large majority. Many of us have moved to particular properties only to find that, later, new local traffic management and other planning controls were subsequently brought in. That’s life. The key thing is to make sure that such changes are in the direction of sustainability and the common good.

Sandy Irvine

Newcastle Green Party


[i] [i] The former chief government scientist Sir John Beddington cited 2030 as the year when there would be a “perfect storm because of the ecological ‘recession’. See: http://www.govnet.co.uk/news/govnet/professor-sir-john-beddingtons-speech-at-sduk-09. This prognosis is generally confirmed by a host of reports from prestigious bodies such as the Royal Society, Chatham House, IUCN, UN Population Fund and WWF. The time is indeed now or it will simply be too late to make a real difference.

Society might be compared to a supertanker heading for the rocks. It will take time to slow down and safely change course. In other words, we cannot putting off all the ‘micro’ decisions, no matter how inconvenient, to navigate safely in the dangerous ‘waters’ ahead. The sooner we start, the easier it will be and the greater will be the chances of success.

[ii] http://www.letstalknewcastle.co.uk/files/GosforthHighStreetimprovements2014_mainleaflet2.pdf.

See also http://www.newcastle.gov.uk/planning-and-buildings/transportation-developments/red-routes

[iii] http://www.planetizen.com/node/43731 and http://www.rudi.net/node/22123

The breakdown of the ‘car culture’ is even happening in the USA: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/sunday-review/the-end-of-car-culture.html?_r=0 and http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/transportation-and-new-generation

[iv] http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/system/files/reducing-the-need-to-travel-guide.pdf  See also: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2009/oct/29/car-free-cities-neighbourhoods and http://www.livingstreets.org.uk

[v] http://www.sustrans.org.uk For a taste of the more radical changes that may be needed, sample: http://www.greens.org/s-r/46/46-03.html

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