Building back better?

Looking forward to the completion of the renewed cycle path by the river in Hackbridge, the photos looked promising in the Spring of this year. Now it has been open for a while and – most importantly – people are using it, what does it add to local cycling? Well, if luck is on your side, you may find it a pleasant and useful short ride… or you may not.

The scheme has literally built back what was there before, a shared path for pedestrians and people on bikes- now a single strip of tarmac with a white line down the middle, with painted ‘clean it up’ messages on the tarmac for dog walkers, but nothing to tell pedestrians which side of the white line is for walking and which side is for cycling. There are signs at each end of the shared path to tell bike users they are sharing, but there’s nothing for other users, not even those white silhouettes of cyclists that planners usually endow with such magic properties.

So, yes, the path is smoother and it is of a constant width; some sightlines are improved. But it remains typical of local cycle infrastructure – a shared path that looks good when empty but with a lack of signage that confuses even the pedestrians and cyclists who dutifully try to make it work.

Previously at this location, there was a line of residential buildings parallel to the river; in front of the buildings, there was green space and then there was a footpath and a cycle path which were physically separate in places, and finally there was the riverbank itself.

Now there is a line of buildings roughly along the line of the previous structure; the former grassy area has disappeared under a new road and a line of parked cars running the length of the development, and then – in the same space as before – there is a shared cycle and footpath.

Of the space between the buildings and the river, probably over half is newly allocated to cars being driven or parked.

The use of the area has changed too – and that is in a certain way something to delight in. The riverbank here was rewilded by a charity in 2014 and it has matured well. Not surprisingly, with literally hundreds of new dwellings within walking distance in Hackbridge, thanks to the new path it is an attractive spot that draws people in.

The other day, for example, at lunchtime midweek, there was a delightful scene. A family sitting on the grassy bank down to the river, children playing on the shared path casting little fishing rods, and a few more children pushing scooters, toys and buggies around on the path. A blissful scene. Everyone was behaving well. There are often older people strolling along or using one of the newly provided benches on the path for a sit and a chat. Neighbours stand chatting in the sun on their way to the shops. Runners do their thing up and down the path, blissfully tuning in through their earbuds. Dog walkers bring their dogs here morning noon and night.

Parents sit on a bench and watch the kids play on the equipment thoughtfully provided – on both sides of the path. This is the open space for people from the new dwellings and quite a few people come strolling along from surrounding streets as well.

All great. Neighbourly. Sociable. Exercise in the fresh air. Nothing to criticize. None of those people is doing anything wrong. But…

But there is a problem, brought about by the experts who planned this revamp. Those happy people are relaxing and playing on the tarmac of a well-established local cycle route, so beloved of councillors when they want to extol Sutton’s cycling infrastructure, a national cycle route NCN20, much publicized by probably every local and national listing about ‘safe’ cycling in this area, and a well-publicised and well-used international route because this is also the official Avenue Verte bike route from Paris to London.

Just before the works began on the path, there was a sign in place about this redesign of the Wandle Trail. Credit was claimed by the developers and by Sutton Council’s relevant departments – the very departments that have planning and promoting active travel and cycling as part of their brief. Why have they put a leisure zone on the tarmac of a long-established transport route?

For years Sutton has converted footpaths to shared paths and declared them to be adequate cycling infrastructure. That has been the Sutton way for cycling as implemented in so many local parks. Now, we welcome Sutton’s newest version of the shared path, shared three ways. Like the two-way version, it only works as long as not all the groups of users expect to use it at the same time. So if it is a success and attracts users, it fails because of the inbuilt conflicts.

Sutton’s latest offering to active travel means that a dated but functional path, shared between walkers and cyclists, has now become an open leisure space as well. Where is the building back better in that?

Was there that consultation with local cycling groups which the council always claims to do?

Where are the aspirations we hear about so often? Sutton has been producing plans for cycling for years and years. A recent post on this website invited us to give three cheers for the latest round of plans for cycling as a part of active travel. Fine words but, on the evidence of this scheme, not worthy of anybody’s cheers yet.

Posted in Advocacy
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