My woeful George Street Design consultation experience

For those not in the know, George Street has been under an experimental road traffic order for the past year. As part of the experiment, the 30 metre-wide road has given over some space to cyclists. Which is nice.

What’s not so nice is its poor design. I’ve been using it for the last year as part of my daily commute, and although I absolutely embrace the council’s decision to offer some proper space for cycling, in practice the experience is flawed for all users of the street. There are plenty other online discussions that are much clearer than I could ever be when it comes to George Street’s ETRO, so I won’t go into detail here.

I did, however, attempt to go into some detail at an open consultation event yesterday. I am not a very vocal cycle campaigner, as this blog confirms. Nor am I a transport planner. I only have my opinions from first-hand experience of riding a bike and reading a lot of cycling literature. I also walk, use public transport and occasionally drive. I feel frustrated and isolated whenever I attempt to “discuss” cycling issues with people that don’t ride a bike for transport, but I felt it important to attend the event and weigh in with my two pennies.

When it comes to cycle campaigning, my usual tact is to write to MSPs and the like as I feel I can be much more considered and back up my observations with links to relevant studies and evidence. Of course, in conversation that’s not so easy to do and I can get frustrated and emotional and can’t articulate myself.

My George Street design experience was almost a carbon copy of that template situation. I was dismayed to hear a range of bizarre and sometimes frightening responses from some of the consultants hired to undertake the consultation, as well as attendees. I couldn’t fight the good fight because I was too busy disliking conflict with strangers.

Some choice exchanges and overheard conversation included snobby opinions on how all the traffic should be moved onto Princes Street because the shops there are very tatty (!). Another grim comment went along the lines of how George Street needs loadsa parking, as posh people will only shop in posh shops if they can have their cars parked outside.

I had a classic conversation when I asked the consultants whether they thought people on bikes were shortchanged in Edinburgh due to the lack of space for them. Pedestrians get footways, traffic gets roads, bikes get a useless hybrid that encourages conflict. They disagreed.

I also had a cracking comment from a consultant who stated that cycling was embedded in Dutch culture, so they are not very relevant as a comparison to the UK. I was too flummoxed to mention that the Dutch only have a cycling culture because investment was made in infrastructure 40 years ago and it has grown from nothing to amazing.

Another choice snippet came from a fellow consultation participant, who stated that the cycling lobby in Edinburgh was getting too strong. As if fighting for cycling as a legit transport mode is the enemy. Because bikes are such a bad idea by easing congestion, being environmentally friendly, keeping people fit, encouraging more robust and connected communities etc etc.

Of course, I also got the standard red light jumping, cyclists on pavements crap and that “You don’t do yourself any favours”… Because if one cyclist red light jumps then we all do it, OBVIOUSLY.

I appreciate that the point of consultation is to gather feedback from lots of different people. I totally get it. And I also understand that some people don’t think bikes are brilliant. What I don’t get is the thinly veiled vitriol and meanness directed towards people riding bikes and the willful ignorance of the problems that too many cars create.

So it’s back to the old considered email, I think. I’m a bit fed up feeling belittled because I choose to cycle in my city.

*** Update 01/09/2015 – I have since been contacted by the council re the above blog post and experience, feel free to read about it.

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9 comments

  1. I absolutely share your experience of finding these discussions in public frustrating and demoralising. I’m sad I didn’t know this event was on or i’d have come along as a ‘sister in arms’. Thanks for being a voice, even if you felt like a small one afterwards.

    1. Hi Helen, thanks for your comment 🙂 There’s not much else to do other than doggedly pick away at the edges of anti-bike myths and hope that one day it will all unravel. Thankfully, there were a lot of people who cycle at the event, so I’m hoping there will be a good range of views and representation. My experiences stemmed from one-to-one conversations, which I found difficult to manage.

  2. I didn’t go to this event, mostly because I was busy but also because my experience with previous consultation events was similar to what you describe.

    I don’t know if the consultants are trained in effective facilitation that encourages also the less self-confident people to contribute. It is a real problem if these events are not handled neutrally and the vocal people dominate, because psychologically a direct conversation with a person influences the decision makers much more than a pile of written objections.

    For example, at the event about the Causey earlier this year, I stood next to a local person who kept going on about how he will suffer terribly if he can’t get his drinks delivered to his door several times a day (presumably not for himself but for his business). Whenever I tried to say something, he just got a bit louder, and the consultant/facilitator made no attempt whatsoever to stop him once he made his point and encourage other citizens to contribute their opinion. I’ve been to other meetings where I just hoped nobody saw that I had a bicycle outside, as so many prejudices where thrown around. At a neighbourhood council meeting, there was a lot of groupthink, I felt quite lonely and not confident enough to say anything.

    It seems to me that it’s not just this individual meeting that went wrong, but a systematic issue. Councillors and consultants may not even notice that there is a problem, as they are know the system and the topics and are used to speaking up in these situations, for us outsiders it is much more difficult.

    1. Hi Stephan, great comment. I agree that those who shout loudest get more attention. Maybe the person I spoke to who said they thought the bike lobby was too powerful shares that sentiment in some way, due mostly to their lack of understanding about cycling and cycling behaviour?

      This particular event had no focal point – you just kind of wandered around looking at panels, adding post-it notes to maps and hoping to speak directly to a consultant. It was very informally put together, and I did get the opportunity to speak to facilitators – I just felt a bit of anti-bike bias. It’s all quite exhausting to constantly have to defend perfectly acceptable cycling behaviour because someone has a preconceived notion of what a cyclist is.

      I would say that we should just keep plugging away, and maybe that’s via email and letter instead of feeling uncomfortable and rounded on in a face to face setting. I absolutely agree that insiders might not even notice a problem and that they need to bear this in mind. Planning of this nature can be difficult to understand for laymen but that doesn’t mean our experiences and feedback are any less valid…

  3. Oh god, that sounds like a horrible experience – I’m impressed with you still being a voice for cycling in Edinburgh when those kind of comments come your way. Like the other commentator I didn’t know this event was on else I would be there and would have bee supporting you in what you were saying. We recently had a conversation in my office around the vitriol and meanness directed toward people on bikes, a colleague even had a man get out a van and square up to him recently. I genuinely thought those kinds of things didn’t happen and not here. Thank you for standing up for us, eventually they will listen.

    1. Hiya, thanks for such a lovely comment of support! 🙂 It was definitely frustrating and I’ve been thinking about the experience on and off over the last few days. I wanted to write about it because it was bugging me so much! I often wonder what people would think of the things they say if they replaced the word “cyclist” with any other group of people. Consultation is meant to gather in a wide range of views and I really appreciate that we don’t all have to agree, but I do find it worrying that many responses and those facilitating appear prejudiced against a very viable and beneficial form of transport, as well as the human beings that choose to ride a bike.

  4. Hi Claire
    I’m the guy at the Council who has been in charge of the George Street Experimental Traffic Regulation Order from the outset, so I wanted to say I’d seen your blog and thanks for posting it.

    The meeting you were at (13/8) was in fact the only part of the George Street trial that I have not been in charge of and I wasn’t in attendance. I’m sorry to read how negative it was for you, especially as the rest of the project to date has been characterised by a huge effort to engage the public and to value people and their needs above all else.

    By way of example, from July 2014 to July 2015 there were some groundbreaking aspects of the project. We took the view that there was only any point in running a trial if it is tested properly, and to everyone’s satisfaction. Otherwise, why trial. So to reassure and to overcome people’s (natural) scpeticism, the public were put in charge of the research aspects.

    The Council paid for an independent research company to undertake 1200 interviews and other traffic-based research, but there have been quarterly meetings where the public have been first to receive the results (before any elected members or senior officials) and it has been the public who have interrogated and scrutinised the feedback. It’s been a refreshing approach, in many people’s eyes – for example here http://www.broughtonspurtle.org.uk/news/george-street-experiment-thrives-success-and-failure)

    So, with this meeting being the first to have moved away from this model, I was interested in your feedback, sorry to read it was negative, but I’m interested in hearing from you about your thoughts. The street is so important to the city, to its many stakeholders, and getting the design right for the long run is something I am passionate about. I’d be happy to pick up the conversation with you if you’d like.

    Drop me a note if you wish or happy to talk on the phone.
    Thanks
    Iain

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