Chairman’s Letter, March 2019
Dear RCC members,
You will no doubt know by now that the “Mass Rapid Transit” project proposed by Reading Borough Council has been abandoned, and soon the Council will be consulting on ways to solve some of the congestion and pollution issues facing Reading.
If anything was like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, this is it. We know that most people depend on cars. It is going to be really tough for the car driver to tell the Council they want to have their freedom to drive restricted.
How many car drivers are going to ask for congestion charging? Which ones will ask to be kept out of the town centre? You will also know that we have 12 years to decarbonise our society to prevent runaway climate breakdown.
In many ways the solutions are similar, as one of the two biggest causes of atmospheric carbon in Reading is transport. The solution to that is rather more pressing and even more challenging, and we really have to get our act together in super short time.
If the experience of Reading is anything to go by, this won’t end well. Extinction Rebellion have a petition going to get the Council to commit to the action required.
The Council pre-empted the arrival of the petition by declaring its own version. At first sight it seemed like a bold step, but as soon as you read it, it was apparently not the sort of courageous step we need.
One of the things I keep hearing is that we, and I mean by we the Councillors and decision makers, have to ensure that our transport policy caters for all road users. For years we have slavishly catered for one above all others, the car driver.
When I was very young the first few cars appeared in our street in London. Across the road from me were prefabricated houses built to house people who had their own houses closer to the centre of London bombed.
Gradually as the East End was rebuilt they moved out, and when the prefabs were demolished we had a field. On the other side of the road was the main A10 heading into London.
When I started primary school I walked, initially on my own, the mile into Edmonton. In the evenings I walked home after school.
I went back a while ago. The field is still a park, the little gardens I used to pass at the end of the road are still there, but these amazing little gardens in the front of the houses have all gone. They are all paved over and are private car parks.
The junction I used to stroll across as an unaccompanied 5 year old is now a multi-lane urban dual carriageway – such is progress. The real thing though? The place stinks. The air is now foul.
Weirdly the air quality monitoring isn’t really easy to follow. I have used a couple of links online, and for example the Reading one (yep, one) hasn’t been updating for three days.
Elsewhere in similar towns and cities the levels are being recorded as harmful, in school half term week when traffic is between 10 and 25 per cent lower than in term times.
During the half term break the weather was incredible. Towards the end of the week it was more like May than February. It felt very pleasant, but yet another of those temperature anomalies that is fast becoming quite frightening.
But the thing that frightened people were groups of kids riding bikes around Reading. There were lots of them, sometimes 30 strong “Terrorising the streets”, ignoring traffic signs, the Highway Code, being rude to anyone they might be challenged by.
I only had the briefest encounter with them. I must say I was a bit jealous. Whilst almost everyone around that day were trapped in their cars these lads (sadly it was all lads) were hooning around with complete freedom.
Even the pedestrians were often trapped, waiting as the interminably slow phases of the crossing lights seemed stuck on red.
Then, like a shoal of fish, 30 kids on bikes sped past. There was hardly a sound, apart from some words spoken between them, and the click of freewheels.
Drivers were trying to snap pictures of them with their phones, pedestrians jumped back, and then they were gone. Away up the road, through the traffic and pffft. Vanished.
I could see lots of downsides. Someone naturally queried where they got their bikes from. And what if they crashed into somebody?
Yep, all valid points. But they were cool, and they were on bikes. Kids now see bikes as cool things.
Those riders all had great skills. It takes a lot of practice to ride along on the back wheel for any length of time. Seemingly out of control, they were actually any-thing but.
Other kids will see it acceptable to ride a bike, if they rode to school they might be admired, not laughed at. This would have far more positive impact than the cycle training that gets delivered mostly in primary schools.
For all its good intentions being lectured by a well meaning adult in a fluorescent vest about road safety, careful positioning and avoiding risks is not making cycling attractive in the least.
I would suggest that doing a course on a wet January day is not going to inspire kids to ride their bikes one little bit.
So when I was a kid the roads were pretty much free for me to use. It wasn’t devoid of cars (I’m not that old), but drivers seemed way more patient, better mannered, less distracted. I felt safe on my bike all of my childhood.
I didn’t have the benefit of a load of friends with bikes, indeed cycling was a bit nerdy even then, but one or two of us rode places together, and that freedom stuck with me all my life.
If it sticks with these kids, and we have a whole generation growing up thinking cycling is cool, then maybe we have a chance to revolutionise our transport systems.
In the meanwhile a bunch of similar aged (but more gender diverse) young people are taking to the streets and the Council chambers with a slightly less controversial ambition.
They are pressing politicians to take climate change more seriously. Adults are too; one of the largest movements in our society is responding to the threat of runaway climate change and ultimately the threat to human life.
Reading Borough Council is about to declare a climate emergency, and one of the things it will have to do to get carbon out of our system is drastically alter the way we travel.
At present the Council is fixated on buses, but buses still use and emit tons of carbon, and are regularly delayed by people in private cars.
If that is to change we have to get rid of most of the cars, and replace them with some small light-weight portable self- powered mobility device.
Adrian Lawson, RCC Chairman