Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Why a Third Crossing is Wrong - We Try to Explain Electricity to a Cat


Our attention has been drawn to the "Why a Third Crossing is Wrong" blog at thirddoncrossing.wordpress.com, in which a community activist in Tillydrone logically sets out the reasons why Aberdeen City Council and their business-community sponsors are wrong to push ever onward with their antiquated proposals for a damaging new bridge (the "Third [sic - see below] Don Crossing") over the River Don at Tillydrone. This new motor-vehicle bridge, if built, would form part of the much larger grand project to build a new (but paradoxically, as we have explained, very old-fashioned) radial expressway in Aberdeen, pointing directly at the heart of the town centre. We've touched on some of the aspects of this new radial expressway once or twice before.

We admire the systematic and thoroughgoing approach demonstrated by the author of Why A Third Crossing is Wrong (let's call it "WTCW") - but of course, the damoclean situation which the Tillydrone (and wider Aberdeen) community finds itself in demands nothing other than all the rigour that can possibly be mobilised in opposition to this road and bridge project which will slice the community in two. The case against the building of this new road and bridge is set out logically and assiduously on the pages of WTCW and the perspicacity and professionalism of the content pages (which are in the form of submissions to the forthcoming public enquiry into the compulsory purchase orders associated with the scheme) does credit to the Tillydrone community. We congratulate the author of the WTCW blog and we recommend it to our readers: go and have a look

Being familiar with some of the issues surrounding the proposed Third Don Crossing, and after reading the WTCW blog, we were reminded of a recent piece on Copenhagenize in which motorists using a street through a community in Ferrara, Italy are referred to as parasites:

What a great word. The host organism is, of course, the city off which they feed. The streets outside my flat as I write this are relatively free of parasites. The ones that plague Copenhagen aren't your traditional parasites. They aren't noctural. They desert their host organism on migratory patterns, scurrying back to their formicaries in the afternoons, only to return to feed upon their host in the morning. To continue their infestation and causing all manner of illnesses that the host organism is unable to defend itself against. 
Traffic pollution with its toxic emissions and noise pollution, a lower perception of safety for pedestrians and cyclists, traffic accidents that kill and maim, reduced property prices and so on. 
Parasites. It's a brilliant way to describe the motorists who roll down these streets, contributing nothing to the liveableness of my neighbourhood and others, hardly making a dent in the economic well-being of the shops, paying their taxes in other municipalities. Rumbling past, spouting the residue of their combusted fossil fuels behind them to the funky tunes on their radio while they text away on their telephones. 

WTDC says:

The academic consensus is that growth in car transport and road haulage mileage should be discouraged as it is not sustainable socially, environmentally and economically and that there should be a ‘modal shift’ to other sustainable forms. i.e. there should be a decoupling of road transport from economic growth.
I am not alone in interpreting that the root of the problem of congestion is the over dependence of the North East on car transport and this is evident by the fact that congestion in and around Aberdeen is not only confined to the Haudagain and Bridge Don ‘pinch points’. I consider that the development will perpetuate this condition by encouraging car usage resulting in more congestion and continuing the progressive marginalisation of sustainable transport alternatives.
Reading through the documentation so far is leading me to the conclusion that there is a bias in the interpretation of the studies leaning towards the conclusion for the need of a road traffic bridge. There appears to be over emphasis on the benefits, understatement of the consequences and the ignoring of alternatives.

OtherAberdeen's regular readers will of course know that our position is uncompromisingly against the use of motor-vehicles as a personal transport mode in the centre of Aberdeen (or any town centre). Policies which discourage cars in urban centres and reallocate roadspace away from motor traffic are mainstream throughout continental Europe and are being adopted even in the USA to the great benefit of local economic prospects and urban social profiles, but when we publish blog-posts demanding that similar policies be adopted here, we generally get a whole lot of quite nasty abuse. 

So… it's a tough nut to crack… Going hard at the technical aspects of specific projects, as WTCW does, and as RoadSense (for instance) are doing with regard to the forthcoming orbital motorway project (the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, or AWPR), is vital - for without these efforts and others like them, 'facts on the ground' would change rapidly and irreversibly, as road-building proposals are presented as plans, and plans are presented as faits accomplis. But it's troubling that efforts like these have to be made at all, for they are fighting a rearguard action against a democratic deficit. And as we have pointed out before, the current road-building obsession in Aberdeen is an atavistic desire for the realisation of plans which were first drawn up in the centre of the car-crazy twentieth century, before the externalities of motor-centric policies were understood. Car-dependency (or is it car-addiction? - so hard to tell the difference) as pointed out by WTCW is endemic in this part of the world.

We believe that the underlying problem lies in the mind-set of the polity here (just offering an opinion like that expressed in the previous sentence can provoke reams of abuse). It's a problem of framing, of context. We said, in the conclusion to our "Woonerf for the Denburn Valley" piece:
"…once our scheme is up and running … who would ever want to take their car all the way into the town centre ever again?"
And among the responses we got was one from someone who said:
"Yeah, exactly. That's the serious danger of schemes like these which remove road capacity"
The point being that, here, in this town, in this area, more cars on more roads is ipso facto regarded as being the desirable outcome. This is the context - the frame - in which we try to make the case for sustainable and active transport. You might as well try to explain electricity to a cat. The framing, the prevailing mindset, makes the case for any alternative to motor-transport practically impossible to promulgate. For example, take the forthcoming "Berryden Corridor Improvements" [sic] project, which forms part of the same radial expressway as the Third Don Crossing. The use of that word 'improvements' is telling, for it is the consequence of an a priori assumption on behalf of planners that more cars on more roads in the city is a good thing. So the  use of that word 'improvements' can be seen as a political deployment of language; for who could credibly oppose something which is an 'improvement'? The questions that exercise us at OtherAberdeen are, firstly: Why is car-dependency endemic here? And secondly: What is to be done? What can be done to break the frame, change the context?


Why is car-dependency endemic here?

Historically and broadly-speaking, economic progress and improvements in living standards have been accompanied by an increase in car ownership and use. This is understandable. The affluent society, status displays, the growth of suburban living and commuting, the upgrade cycle, etc. All other things being equal (and in the absence of civic policies to discourage motoring) economic growth provokes more motoring; cause and effect. It appears that our policy-makers have got this back-ass forwards; mistaking cause for effect they now believe that more motoring on more roads is a primary cause of economic growth. This is a cargo cult.

OtherAberdeen has explored the impulse for hierarchical status-display through motoring and, while that's an effect that's evident everywhere in the UK, we feel that the extreme affluence of the upper percentiles of the Aberdeen population has a disproportionate psychological 'pull' effect on those 'below' them in the hierarchy, many of who mistake affluence for wealth and so cannot understand that aspiration is not the same thing as acquisition. "Aberdeen is Tycoon-town, / If you're not a tycoon yet, you will be soon." So, aping the transport choices of the hyper-affluent, the people of Aberdeen and its hinterland are delighted to put more cars on more roads, because to them it demonstrates that Aberdeen is a town on the up-and-up, a town that's going somewhere (even if that's only to the shops for a pint of milk).

Related to that upper-percentile affluence is, of course, the fact that the predominant industry round here is concerned with oil extraction. An acquaintance, defending his excessive motor-mileage said he was "supporting the local economy" by using so much petrol. He wasn't joking. But there's a bit more to it than that: Aside from the impacts upon urban liveability, aside from the detrimental personal and social effects of sedentary lifestyles, and aside from the impact on the perception of safety and desirability of switching to other transport modes, excessive motoring also contributes to climate change (motor transport causes about a quarter of UK carbon emissions). As motor transport and the oil extraction industry are critically co-dependent, so it is psychologically impossible for a motorist in Aberdeen to integrate the fact that motoring is harmful into his or her world view, for that is the same thing as acknowledging that our town's success (such as it is) is based upon that same globally harmful thing. If you want to get Aberdeen people to admit that motoring is harmful, you are asking them to admit that the North Sea oil industry is harmful, and that, by extension, Aberdeen itself is harmful. As Upton Sinclair (author of "Oil!" filmed as "There Will be Blood") said:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it!"

What is to be done?

We've mentioned that asking people in Aberdeen to switch to a mode of transport which is less amenable to hierarchical status displays is hard going.

Having spent a lifetime on the upgrade cycle gathering those letters and numbers on the boot-lip of their car - those glyphs and cartouches which so shorthandedly signify their importance - to then tell them that it was all for nothing and that they must abandon these status-displays is to so undermine the foundations of their world-view that they cannot integrate it into reasonable discourse. You might as well tell them that everything they believe in and hold dear is demonstrably wrong, and that everything they think they have achieved and hope to go on to attain is just an illusion. It's like telling a toddler that Santa doesn't exist, and taking away their lollipop at the same time. The reaction you get is not good.

In an ideal world, the fact that there is no 3rd Don Crossing would be seen as an opportunity. For instance, in both Oxford and Cambridge, high levels of active and sustainable transport are the norm. In Oxford's case, this was policy-driven. There it was decided in the 1970's that the urban environment in the town centre was simply too precious to expose to the detrimental effects of motor-traffic. Park-and-ride was pioneered in Oxford, but - crucially - it was accompanied by a moratorium on the creation of new parking spaces in the town centre. No new public car-parks, and - even more importantly - no employee carparks for businesses. While we have excellent P&R facilities for Aberdeen, they are fatally undermined by policies which continue to attract large numbers of motor journeys into the heart of the town.  Cambridge benefitted from a different dynamic; though, paradoxically, it was a lack of dynamism which has lead to today's happy outcome. In that town, civic neglect meant that they missed out on the late 20th century enthusiasm for inner-city ring-roads and radial expressways and the like. What turned out to be benign neglect meant none of that sort of motor-pandering infrastructure was installed, and - the ancient town centre being largely unsuitable for motor-traffic - the people of Cambridge took to bikes (or, rather, never got off them). Today, Cambridge has the highest modal share for cycling in the UK. It's worth emphasising that this is not the result of a specific pro-active-transport policy, but rather is the outcome of doing very little to encourage motoring.


But where does that leave the likes of us active-transport advocates in Aberdeen? In Aberdeen, it leaves us out on the edge; that's where. Sniping from the fringe, marginalised, a hated out-group, seen as dogs-in-mangers; anti-progress, anti-business, anti-Aberdeen. But, of course, we are none of those things.

Additionally, we are highly skeptical of the compromises offered by groups such as Get-About, and Aberdeen Cycle Forum - because what they ask is that sustainable and active transport be considered, be included in strategic plans which are largely about putting more cars on more roads. And they get exactly what they ask for - tokenistic half measures, afterthoughts and unsuitable infrastructure tacked onto major road-building projects. Where these groups fail is in their acceptance that active and sustainable travel is 'in addition to' business as usual, whereas, if campaigns for active and sustainable travel were successful, there would be significantly less pressure on existing road capacity, and calls for more roads would simply evaporate. For active and sustainable transport is not 'in addition to' business as usual - rather, it is 'instead of' business as usual. The policies of GetAbout and the like have failure built in, for they first acquiesce unquestionably to the a priori calls for more roads, and then seek to piggyback on that.

We note that Aberdeen City Council's plans for the Third Don Crossing bridge and its feeder roads include some tokenistic cycle paths, some of which are labeled as being 'segregated'. You'd think we'd be pleased, yes? Well we're not, because this labelling demonstrates that road-planners in this town have completely misunderstood what segregation of facilities for cycling should actually encompass. We couldn't put it any better than the Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club, so we'll leave it to them and their discussion of what "Going Dutch" would mean for UK cycling infrastructure:


The fact is that ‘Going Dutch’ does mean having segregation everywhere! But there’s one fundamental caveat; The British assume segregation to mean ‘segregating cyclists from the road to ’improve traffic flow’ for motorised traffic’ whereas the Dutch mean ‘segregate motorised vehicles from people to improve movement for everyone’.
Through the years, the British have created a lot of bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like. The Dutch did the same but ensured that it became an utter pain in the buttocks to get across the town being bypassed in a car, in effect forcing motorised traffic to use the new infrastructure built. The British didn’t and are still paying the price with heavily congested town and city centres. In fact we keep using it as some perverse justification to build more bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like.


Quite. Here, in Aberdeen, we have both plans for a new orbital motorway bypass and a new radial expressway (as well as other radial access 'improvements' for motor transport). Additionally, so great is the fear that the orbital motorway bypass road will reduce traffic flows into and through the town centre, that NESTRANS (the North East of Scotland Transport Partnership - a political/business quango) document "Optimising the Benefits of the AWPR" (pdf) includes specific provision for measures  to 'improve' radial flows of motor traffic towards and through the town centre. This is the direct polar opposite of the more modern transport planning we see in continental Europe (in particular Netherlands and Denmark) where, as the Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club point out, yes indeed they have bypasses and motorways and the like, but it is this infrastructure itself which forms the major plank of the segregation policy. 
For these roads fulfil the policy of segregating cars from people, keeping motor-traffic flows away from where people want and need to be. And so, in this way, urban centres - centres for entertainment, residences, commerce and community - are allowed to fulfil their correct urban function as human-scale places for people, rather than machine-scale places for cars. Were our forthcoming orbital motorway bypass project to be accompanied by policies which would prevent radial flows of motor traffic into and through the centre of our town, there would be no greater advocates of it than we. But it is not, so we are not. 

Incontrovertible evidence has been mounting for some time now, demonstrating beyond doubt that motor-centric policies to encourage ever-increasing numbers of motorcar journeys into the centres of towns are wrong. Wrong for the environment, wrong for personal health, wrong for the community and wrong for business sustainability. Indeed, we were delighted to notice that a raft of recent studies encompassing places as diverse as The Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Canada, Swizerland and the United States shows policies which cater for bicycle transport are better for local business than those which cater for motor transport.

 ...a study from the Dutch city of Utrecht which found that whilst bicycle-based consumers spend less per transaction, they make more visits and spend the most collectively. This isn’t the only connection – a German study found similar results, calling cyclists ‘better customers’ due to them making eleven trips per month compared to seven for motorists. And the Swiss are in on it too, where research into parking space profitability found that each square metre of bicycle parking generated €7500 compared to €6625 for cars.

When will Aberdeen get the message? In the past, when they didn't know what else to do, physicians used to allow fevers to run high - kill or cure. Perhaps the motor-centric policies of Aberdeen - with our forthcoming orbital motorway, accompanied as it is by this new bridge and other access projects at Haudagain, 3rd Don Crossing, Bridge of Dee replacement, Berryden 'Improvements', and a great big new carpark where Union Terrace Gardens used to be are an attempt to provoke just such a crisis - for once these projects are complete, large volumes of high speed traffic will power unimpeded into the heart of our town, causing atrocious levels of noise and chemical pollution, heavy congestion and destroying liveability for the communities the expressways bisect. Once this crisis is upon us, policy will - must - inevitably shift, for there will be nowhere left for new roads to be built.

Or will there?

Tunnels Vision for Aberdeen Transport
(a must-read)

If we tolerate current plans, the risible nonsense of grandiloquent proposals for tunnels and monorails and god-knows-what-all will surely follow. For that reason, as well as everything else above, we wish the Tillydrone community and the author of Why a Third Crossing is Wrong every success in their resistance.

But finally, there is another reason why a "Third" Don Crossing is "wrong". For, having successfully framed the discourse - the promoters of this scheme have managed to get us all to use the name "Third Don crossing" when referring to it. But it is not - if this scheme goes ahead - this will be the sixth bridge over the Don in Aberdeen. Count them.


1 comment:

Trublando said...

Well, it may seem like an unchangeable thing but keep at it. At some point, and it's usually gradual until then, you'll notice that more and more people are thinking the same way and will start listening to the message.
To get there, make allies, try to see their needs and show them that adding some more stuff doesn't threaten what they do.