Chairman’s Letter, September 2018

Dear RCC members,

I cycle into and out of and across town all the time, and I’ve been doing that for years.

There are many times when I have to try and pass through heavy traffic. Castle Hill going west is a nightmare. The road goes from one lane to three and gets choked with cars in the home-ward bound rush at the end of the working day.

There is, despite this being one of the widest roads in the town, nothing to cater for cyclists. Cycling up the hill and negotiating traffic is pretty challenging, and sitting behind it really isn’t an option.

Most folk who cycle understandably use the pavement, but never do I see more than a couple of cyclists, even when the traffic is at its heaviest.

But most people choose to drive. It’s true there are alternatives. I could go home via Baker Street, which is generally a bit quieter, but the road surface is appalling, and even with my new comfort tyres a loaded bike is a handful on the potholed cratered and broken up surface.

It also has problems such as the steep uphill called Brunswick Hill. This is one way downhill, and despite there being tons of room for a bike going slowly up the hill, if I use it I am breaking the law. We have asked for this to be changed, but no, someone might object.

And even so at some point I have to rejoin the Bath Road, and making the right turn out of Brunswick Street in the rush hour is challenging, to put it mildly. It would be a simple thing to make this route west-bound continuous, a bit of tarmac, a contraflow for cyclists, but as it is it isn’t great, especially if I’m carrying shopping.

I could go via Fobney Street, Swan Place, the footbridge over the IDR, and up through old Coley. This is actually quite pleasant, although it is physically demanding. Two very steep although short hills make the journey interesting, but it is also very indirect, and I end up on Bath Road anyway.

It also has some serious potholes to avoid, but I do use it from time to time. The bridge though isn’t supposed to be used by cyclists. I doubt anyone has ever objected, but it is a footbridge, not a shared use bridge.

Or I could follow the new National Cycle Network, NCN 422. Down Bridge Street, Fobney Street, then through Old Coley without the hill and up Berkeley Avenue. Berkeley Avenue in the rush hour is no better than Castle Hill, despite the painted cycle lanes.

In fact it is worse. Drivers don’t usually move over to overtake a cyclist in a cycle lane, so you get passed more closely more often than is good for you, on the odd occasion when the traffic does flow.

Another alternative is the canal all the way to Southcote. This is three times longer than the shortest direct route. It is lovely, a very attractive route, but it is narrow, busy and has several barriers, so you have to get off a number of times. It is a royal pain when you have shopping to carry.

So the main route I use is Castle Hill and Bath Road. I know this route better than the others, because I use it so much. I feel I have a few points to make about it.

In the rush hour it stinks. In the recent hot weather you could cut the fumes with a knife. Even the bus exhausts smell. When you are behind a bus on the hill and it pulls away it emits pollution. So do all the cars and trucks, some more than others, but all emit some.

As you look up from the bottom of the hill to the top there is a seething mass of vehicles, jockeying for position. There is seemingly no space for a bicycle even. But despite it being a hill and despite the fact I often have shopping on board, I find a way through the traffic.

It is utterly dreadful. Weaving into a space, or passing cars to find them suddenly move away as you’re passing them. At the moment I am fit enough and can still pedal quite hard, I sometimes have to, and I get to the top having inhaled a few lungfuls of that polluted air.

I might point put that I have been doing this for 30 years. The same hill. The same conditions. Nothing has really changed, the air isn’t any cleaner, the drivers behave a bit more carelessly (they weren’t on the phone 30 years ago).

About 25 years ago the old County Council wanted to mark out cycle lanes on the road. It seemed like a good idea, especially on the uphill bit, after all there is loads of space. I was warned off pushing this forward (I worked at the Council at the time, and through a complicated arrangement both parties worked on cycling schemes).

Many times since cycle lanes have been discussed along the Bath Road, but all rejected. This is a wide road, with wide footways. Money has come and gone. Remember the Local Sustainable Travel Fund? RBC got over £26 million.

If you go that way look at the paint on the road. There is hatching in the middle of the road. There is one bit, near Berkeley Avenue, where the road is maybe too narrow for a good cycle lane, but a while back when it was wet I noticed that due to the placement of a series of posts and lampposts on the pavement moss grows in a large area of the very wide pavement that is never trod, so you could narrow the pavement and provide space.

All this has been discussed with the professionals and the politicians many times. And nothing has been done. That is 30 years of stagnation as motor traffic pours up and down that road.

There are times when it is fine though. The other afternoon I cycled in and bought some fruit at the market. I wasn’t planning to do that and my saddlebag and the little foldaway rucksack I carry in it were full, but there were peaches and pears and bananas going cheap and I fancied buying more.

Home is 1.25 miles away straight up the Bath Road. I was home in 10 minutes, unloaded and back out the door to go and buy some more fruit in 10 minutes. I filled my bags again and had enough to last me a week (I do eat a lot of fruit!) so I headed back.

In that time the road had completely changed. On the first run home the hill wasn’t busy. I cycled all the way to the top in the left hand lane and it was quite pleasant. The second trip was totally different.

The town was emptying out, and dozens of people were driving home. One person per car. Some of them lived in my road. The cars in the left hand lane were stationary. I tried passing them on the right, the gutter and the poor surface on the left made squeezing up the inside impossible.

I was between two lanes, and when the lights changed the traffic began to move. I wanted to go straight on, but I was on the right hand side of traffic, so whilst trying to keep my speed up, on a heavily laden bike, up a hill, I was having to look left to negotiate a space in the straight ahead lane.

I managed it OK and then had to find a way around the queue of cars nose to tail all the way along the Bath Road. A few people walked on the pavement, and a couple of people rode their bikes there. I stuck to the road, and was mostly able to overtake all the way along the road. This little route illustrates neatly the crap situation Reading is in with cycle provision.

Nobody but a strong assertive and confident cyclist is ever going to use the road in the rush hour. Nobody is ever going to try cycling as a means of transport despite living within a comfortable cycling distance from work. There are many obstacles to people getting on a bike but the hideous congestion when most people want to travel, and the complete absence on anywhere safe to ride is the main one.

And this has been the same for 30 years that I know of. I doubt it got worse the day I arrived though. I bet it has been like that for half a century. Half a century of the main road into and out of town being utterly inaccessible to people who might well fancy cycling.

And that is one road. The Oxford Road is flat and only has one lane, but it is hideous too. The Tilehurst Road is narrow and busy and hideous. The canal is lovely and quiet and peaceful and has fresh clean air, but the surface is sandy once past Rose Kiln Lane, and it has so many barriers (every single one put there by the Council, and despite campaigning to get them removed every single one will be staying) and it is so much longer that it isn’t viable as a regular route.

And what is the Council, who are responsible for the roads, doing about it? Nothing. Not one single thing.

I would like a Councillor to experience Castle Hill. Oh wait a minute, one of them lives on this very road. I pass his home every time I ride up the hill. He was living there 30 years ago too. He has been breathing in the fumes, he has been walking past the queues, he has seen the people cycling on the pavement, he has seen that hardly anyone cycles up the hill.

He has done nothing in 30 years. Some people say he is the most powerful councillor in Reading. I wonder what it is that holds back the development of a safe cycle facility all the way up the hill past his house. There must be mysterious forces at work if even he can’t do it.

Adrian Lawson, RCC Chairman

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