A little while ago I visited Durham for a short break. It’s an attractive, small city of around 80,000 inhabitants, with a narrow, historical street pattern that precludes the use of the motor car in much of the centre. Indeed, there is a congestion charge for motorists who wish to access the Durham peninsula.
Given that there is a university here, with 16,000 students, and also that the city centre is only a short ride from much of the outskirts – no more than around 2-3 miles – the bicycle could and should be a predominant form of transport in Durham, despite the city being rather hilly.
Yet in a full 48 hours in the city, spending much of my time walking around as a tourist, I only managed to see a grand total of seven people using a bike. Admittedly, this was (just) out of university term time, but this is a miserable number. I saw thousands of cars being driven around the city, and only a handful of people using bikes, enough to count on my fingers.
But this is evidently not some kind of anomaly. The data I’ve managed to dig out on my return suggests that cycling is next to non-existent in Durham. The figure for cycling commuting share in Durham (which, remember, will be significantly higher than overall cycling mode share) was just 1% in 2001 [pdf], and it seems this figure has not improved in the intervening years.
Only 0.3% of County Durham primary schoolchildren cycle to school, and the figure is not much better for secondary schoolchildren – just 0.7% cycle to school cycle to school ( it is worth noting, incidentally, that five times more children take a taxi to school in this region, than ride a bike.)
Durham County Council’s literature is filled with pictures of people haring around on mountain bikes in the countryside (see left), which is fine as a leisure pursuit, but isn’t really going to do anything about changing the way everyday journeys are going to be made, and doesn’t suggest serious engagement with the issue of cycling as a mode of transport.
The latest cycling strategy, for 2012-15, is a bit sexier, with some pictures of bikes with wicker baskets in amongst those of people engaging in cycle sport (although the cover again features mountain bikers and pictures of disc brakes), but there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement that cycling is going absolutely nowhere in the area, and has been for decades.
There has, apparently, been a detailed review of the previous cycling strategy, but I can’t find it anywhere on the County Durham website, and the current Cycling Strategy isn’t very helpful in locating it either, listing the website for it as durham.gov.uk/xxxxxxxxx (right). There aren’t any figures for current cycling levels in Durham contained within the document, so there’s absolutely no way of knowing whether cycling is increasing or decreasing. The talk in latest strategy document is encouraging (there is an acknowledgement that behaviour change programmes are unlikely to have any effect without an improvement in physical conditions), but talk is one thing, and actual progress in creating a safe, pleasant and inviting environment for cycling is another.
Another insight into how marginal cycling is in Durham comes from this story about four (yes, just four) bike lockers at Durham bus station, which remained unused for five years, because the council can’t work out how to operate them. Nobody even seemed to notice!
From walking around the city, it’s quite obvious to me why cycling is non-existent in Durham. The main roads I saw were dire.
Fast, wide and open, with absolutely no concession made for anyone daring to ride a bike. It’s impossible to imagine ordinary people choosing to ride on these kinds of roads, mixing with motor traffic.
Despite delays in and out of the city, nobody appeared to have been tempted to cycle instead, to beat the queues.
It is on these main roads that physical separation from motor traffic is desperately needed, but despite there being plenty of space available, cycle tracks (and not even cycle lanes!) were not in evidence.
Surface and multi-storey car parks cost at least £1.40 for the minimum stay (the multi-storeys rather more), but again this cost does not appear to have prompted locals to opt for cycling into the city instead.
Cycle stands were empty.
Or littered with the sad, decaying carcasses of bikes that appear to have been there for years.
Instead of crossing the large roundabout, and the main dual carriageway bridge over the River Wear (which both feature in the second photograph in the set of ‘main roads’ shown earlier) you are diverted to the south, and then several hundred metres to the north, to cross on an attractive (but rather narrow) pedestrian and cycle bridge.
People have obviously been taking to the pavement here (which is really quite wide on the other side of the road) to avoid this restriction, but the problem has been solved with a ‘Cyclists Dismount’ sign. Plainly there is no way road space could be reallocated on this busy street. To repeat – National Cycle Network.
If you can be bothered to get as far as the bridge, then – miraculously – a contraflow cycle lane appears out of nowhere. It is unclear how you are supposed to join it, given that you can’t cycle in the road or on the pavement prior to it.
You can use it for about 50 metres, and then it promptly gives up as abruptly as it started. Dismount again!
Your ‘route’ then involves walking up the ramp on the right, to cross to the other side of the dual carriageway, on the bridge. NCN14 then continues on a narrow pavement, fenced off from road, before descending into a really quite scary underpass to return back to the side of the dual carriageway you were originally on.
Apart from that, it’s fine.
If you don’t fancy doing this, then your other option is to ‘man up’ and cycle across the bridge, and the two roundabouts at either end.
Perfectly serviceable tracks, that become roads into the city centre, are blocked off in ways that make cycling inconvenient, like in the example pictured left.
And besides a huge number of wide one-way streets that have no exemptions or contraflows for cycling, Durham also has restrictions on vehicles accessing some streets at all times, with no exemptions for cycling, despite loading by motor vehicles being allowed at off-peak times.
That means HGVS can legally drive on these streets before 10am, and after 6pm, for loading purposes, but cycling is not allowed at these times (unless they are ‘loading’ perhaps?). Completely illogical.
This chap – one of the seven people I saw riding bikes in two whole days – is breaking two rules; cycling the wrong way on a one-way street, and disobeying the ‘no vehicles’ restriction. However, there doesn’t seem to be any sensible reason why cycling should not be allowed on this bridge (which, incidentally, is the only other alternative to the two bridges into the city from the west that have featured already).
I don’t think it would be unreasonable to describe Durham as institutionally anti-cycling. I doubt the city has consciously drawn up plans to design out the use of bikes, but – unconsciously or otherwise – it seems every effort has been taken to ignore cycling, or to make it as unpleasant or as inconvenient as possible. The statistics bear out the results.