Why do we want people to walk and cycle for short trips, instead of driving? One of the main reasons, of course, is public health. If we cycled as much as the Dutch and the Danes in urban areas, figures typically suggest we would trim tens of billions of pounds off the NHS budget over just two decades. Physical inactivity is a huge economic burden.
We can attempt to encourage people to exercise more, and to do more physical activity, by providing facilities that people can use to play sport, or to engage in leisure activity. But the best way to increase physical activity is simply to build it into everyday life – to make walking and cycling obvious choices for ordinary day-to-day trips. Physical activity then doesn’t require any ‘extra’ effort or planning on the part of individuals; it will happen without people even thinking about it.
Unfortunately this kind of strategic planning is almost entirely absent when we look at how transport decisions are actually made on the ground in Britain. We talk about boosting physical activity and getting people to exercise, but then we go right ahead and put walking and cycling last in our transport planning.
There’s an excellent example of this awful kind of decision-making brewing in Horsham, where the council is planning to expand the amount of car parking at (ironically enough) the town’s leisure centre – Pavilions in the Park – at the expense of walking and cycling, and trees and green space.
The leisure centre is located almost exactly in the centre of the town, on the edge of the town’s park – so it is, theoretically, in an ideal spot for people to walk and cycle to. Most of the town, and its tens of thousands of residents, are within just one mile of it.
There is already a fairly large car park in front of the leisure centre, with 208 spaces. The council wants to add 30 or so car parking spaces to the site, while (quite literally) squeezing out walking and cycling access to the centre from the north in order to do so.
At present, there is a fairly attractive pedestrian path that runs directly towards the leisure centre from the main road. It is in the middle of the car park, but you are effectively screened from it by hedges, trees, and planting. There are zebra crossings to give you priority as you enter the site.
The main element of the new plan is essentially to sacrifice this path altogether to add in extra parking spaces, along with the removal of trees and green space at the margins – again, to squeeze in more car parking. A path will still remain, but it will be just 1.2 metres wide (yes, 1.2 metres), and unpleasantly sandwiched between two rows of car parking.
As you can see inn the diagram above, the path is explicitly the width of three tactile paving slabs, a Scrooge-like degree of consideration for pedestrian comfort, convenience and safety.
This narrow width will be compromised further by street lighting and inevitable ‘overhanging’ of the path by parked cars. I’m grateful to a member of the Horsham District Cycle Forum for supplying these photos, below, of overhanging parking in the current car park, illustrating just how much a 1.2m path would be narrowed by parking on both sides.
If anyone manages to make it down this narrow corridor between dozens of parked cars on either side, they will then have wiggle through this insulting little maze (still only 1.2 metres wide) around some more car parking, before they finally arrive at the leisure centre.
Compare this path with the existing pedestrian path, which is direct, wide, and attractive at this point – a good piece of public space, albeit one that sits in the middle of a car park.
Yet this is going to be torn up and replaced with the tiny, circuitous narrow path shown above, all for the sake of squeezing in a handful of extra car parking spaces. In an attempt at justification, it is claimed that the existing central path is little used, but
- a) no evidence has been presented that that is the case, nor does it sit with my experience, or that of people I know, and
- b) this is, and will be, the only pedestrian access to the leisure centre from the main road. Justifying desperately low-quality provision on this basis amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In short, walking is treated with complete contempt in these plans – the background assumption seems to be everybody drives to this leisure centre, and will be driving to it, and therefore won’t even bother using this bit of path. Likewise, it appears to be assumed that very few people will walk and cycle here to the centre, and those peasants that are willing to do so will just have to lump it – either walk among the cars in the car park, or wiggle along this very poor, narrow route.
As for cycling, it isn’t strictly permitted on the existing path, and will be utterly impractical on the tiny new path, so again the assumption seems to be that people will have to cycle with the cars, just as they are expected to walk with them. I only managed to pop out to take photos for about five minutes yesterday afternoon, but there were plenty of families and young children cycling to the leisure centre after school either on the existing path, or on pavements.
This may or may not be legal, but they are obviously expressing a preference for cycling away from the car park. Forcing people with young children to cycle on the road through the car park will clearly reduce the numbers of people willing to cycle to the leisure centre. A serious disincentive to active travel – all to accommodate more car parking.
The final obstacle is that, as the plan involves adding automatic barriers for drivers on entry and exit, anyone cycling will have negotiate a narrow bypass, again only a metre or so wide, and shared with motorbike users.
From the scale of these plans, this bit of path will be approximately 1.5m wide, clearly not sufficient for two-way flow. And note that, while this channel is desperately narrow, it sits alongside two exit barriers for motor traffic (in red). An extra exit has been added, with cycling squeezed (just like walking), to allow motorists to make a quick getaway.
These kinds of plans completely undo any public health benefit accruing from the leisure facilities on the site.
Sensible, joined-up planning to improve public health, to reduce congestion and pollution, to make our towns better places to live, should obviously involve planning safe and attractive routes for walking and cycling as a first priority, with space for motoring accommodated around those prioritised walking and cycling routes. Yet here the complete opposite is planned. An already large car park is set to be expanded further, pushing walking and cycling to the margins, removing any incentive people might have had to make healthy transport choices to visit the centre.
These plans are so bad that even the fairly car-centric county council, West Sussex, has flagged up both the awful design of the pedestrian access to the centre –
There is also the matter of the footpath leading through the centre of the site. This is the only segregated pedestrian access from Hurst Road into the site. At present this is generous in terms of width (over 3 metres). The proposed route however is 1.2 metres wide with pinch points due to lighting columns. A width to allow two way movements and the needs of all users should be used.
… and the narrow width (and poor design) of the cycle bypass –
Cyclists/motorcyclists would effectively have to give way to traffic emerging behind them. The narrow width would also make two way movements through this very difficult.
Councils that voice commitments to strategic planning and environmental priorities cannot be taken seriously when they are simultaneously producing awful schemes like this one, plans that stand in direct contravention of local, county and national planning policy.
This scheme simply has to be binned.
I’ve spotted that the council officer has attempted to justify the tiny 1.2m width of the proposed path on the following basis –
In the Department of Transport document Manual for Streets, it states there is no minimum width for footways however it does give guidance on widths for users. The width of this raised footway was considered against its car park location and use, and allows for all types of users from single person to a person being guided, persons who wish to pass, users with prams, disabled persons and wheelchairs users.
Department of Transport document Manual for Streets, although it states there is no minimum width for footways, gives the following guidance:-
- Person with a walking stick – 750mm
- A wheelchair – 900mm
- Person with a child side by side – 1200mm
The government Inclusive Mobility document gives a guidance width of:
- Person with a walking stick requires 750mm width of path
- Person with a walking aid (frame) requires 750mm width of path
- A wheelchair as 700mm wide or allowing for elbows 900mm width
- Blind person with cane or assistance dog requires 1100mm width of path
- A visually impaired person who is being guided requires 1200mm width of path
Taking these in turn, if we actually look at Manual for Streets, the widths given aren’t the minimum requirements, just the actual dimensions of the users in question.
Note that the 1.5m width of two people walking side-by-side with a pushchair has been (deliberately?) omitted from the officer’s summary of Manual for Streets. Probably a bit embarrassing to admit that your path can’t accommodate two parents pushing their child in a pushchair.
What Manual for Streets actually says is
There is no maximum width for footways. In lightly used streets (such as those with a purely residential function), the minimum unobstructed width for pedestrians should generally be 2 m.
Note – ‘unobstructed’. The proposed 1.2m path will be obstructed by both lighting columns and overhanging parked cars. This passage also directly contradicts the officer’s assertion that Manual for Streets ‘states there is no minimum width for footways’.
As for the ‘Inclusive Mobility’ document, we again find that the officer has selectively omitted a key detail (in bold) –
Someone who does not use a walking aid can manage to walk along a passage way less than 700mm wide, but just using a walking stick requires greater width than this; a minimum of 750mm. A person who uses two sticks or crutches, or a walking frame needs a minimum of 900mm, a blind person using a long cane or with an assistance dog needs 1100mm. A visually impaired person who is being guided needs a width of 1200mm. A wheelchair user and an ambulant person side-by-side need 1500mm width.
And here is the passage from Inclusive Mobility on minimum path widths that the officer has failed to quote –
A clear width of 2000mm allows two wheelchairs to pass one another comfortably. This should be regarded as the minimum under normal circumstances. Where this is not possible because of physical constraints 1500mm could be regarded as the minimum acceptable under most circumstances, giving sufficient space for a wheelchair user and a walker to pass one another.
Given that there are no ‘physical constraints’ here whatsoever – the path is already 3m wide and is only being narrowed in the first place to accommodate more car parking – it is totally unjustifiable to narrow the path below 2m.