Interview with Cllr Debs Absolom
The Newsletter Editor interviewed Cllr Debs Absolom to find out more about her and what she thinks about cycling issues.
You have recently become the Chair of the Traffic Management Sub-committee and the Cycle Forum. Did you seek these positions out due to a particular interest in transport issues?
I took on the role as I am very interested in it. I love cycling and walking, and I was a motorcyclist in my younger days. I drive a car and a white van for my gardening and landscaping business with my husband.
Cycling is a huge thing for me. I have an allotment in Scours Lane which I cycle to and I do the loop with the river and the canal to get into town. We hope to get permission to make that a complete loop. We discussed this at last cycle forum meeting and I’m hoping John Lee will help us with the barriers near the Fobney, which are there to prevent mopeds and scrambling bikes from getting through, but I don’t know if that is actually achieving anything because they just come in the other end.
Adrian sent a list of all the different access places, so we cycled around and took loads of photographs to see what would be the best solution. I think this is blocking not just cyclists, but also negotiating the bollards makes it inaccessible for buggies and disability scooters and, as Adrian pointed out, other forms of disability transport.
Yes, I’m interested in this whole subject.
What would you like to see achieved through the Cycle Forum under your Chairmanship?
I can already see the work the RCC is achieving. I recently met Karen at Reading Pride.
Regarding NCN422, I’m very aware of John Lee’s input to help our officers to produce the right sort of barriers with, for example, the Honey End Lane round- about onto the Bath Road. The barriers are high enough to slow people down, but set back at enough distance to turn a vehicle in off the main drag. These details are extremely helpful.
We’ve been talking about bringing ReadyBikes further west because there are too many to the east, and somebody suggested more at Green Park. We’re looking further into park and rides to make people leave their cars outside of town.
Reading suffers from bad traffic congestion (as we all know) and yet cycling makes up a small percentage of all journeys, far less than in many European cites. (The Dutch cycle for 26% of their journeys, in Reading it was recorded as 2.4% in the 2016 Annual Cordon Count). What do you see as the main blockers to greater cycle uptake?
These are some stumbling blocks we will have to deal with. Reading is a very attractive place for people to come in and work, and with a lot more houses and multiple occupation, more cars are coming in to park. The East Reading Mass Rapid Transit is about trying to get park and rides on the outskirts and making people use them, and if we provide bikes for people to cycle into the town centre rather than using their cars, it would help improve the situation.
Other issues were discussed at the last forum meeting, such as Vastern Road, where we need safer protection for cyclists and pedestrians for that roundabout.
I think the work on the NCN422 to make pathways wider, moving obstructions to make people use the shared space – I know there are some cyclists that don’t want to share space with pedestrians, but when you’ve got a packed town we’ve got to use what we have.
This is something I can see where a red route could keep the traffic moving. We have some terrible issues with double parking, so the red route is to try and deal with the problem of people parking in the wrong place. Hopefully contributions from the Cycle Forum and the Traffic Management Sub-Committee can help with this, since this project is a big learning curve. I hope to engage the Cycle Forum’s different members to help regarding Oxford Road. I don’t actually cycle along the Oxford Road – maybe I should start doing that to see what it’s like as an alternative to usually going along Tilehurst Road.
But it is about the red route, which goes along the number 17 bus route, to try to keep the flow of traffic and deal with the double parking and the misuse of the bays and the pavement. We can only implement small areas at a time, so we will start in the heart of the Oxford Road and then expand out, but each section needs feedback to the forum.
There are double parking problems – as reported by the bus company – where cars pull up and park right in the middle of the road, especially in the Wokingham Road area. It’s where you go past those shops and you’ve got parking bays and cars double parking next to the bank, preventing all the traffic from moving along that route. We’re hoping a red route with double red lines, like they have in London, will stop illegal parking, as on a double yellow they could get away with it for a short space of time.
So you do cycle around Reading (as you said earlier). What kind of bike have you got?
A Ridgeback. I got it from AWCycles and got a good reduced price on it.
What routes do you take? You said Tilehurst Road and the canal and Scour Lane. But you don’t go along the Oxford Road.
That is something I need to do.
Yes, you need to experience this at least once. So if you don’t cycle down the Oxford Road, what’s putting you off?
It is an extremely busy road. I prefer personally to not cycle on the pathways, however, I do use shared paths, and I do use the canal. I’m not as brave as John Lee to go down the Vastern Road, which is where we hope we will be looking at as an area that is dangerous for cyclists.
I do cycle alternative routes from my house, rather than having to go down the Oxford Road. Part of me does this because it’s my ward and I want to keep an eye on what’s going on. I can cycle through Waverley Road, I cycle along through the Dee Road estate, and I do use different routes like that.
RBC is set to develop a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan. How do you think this can best achieve a quality cycle network over and above what has been achieved by the annual implementation plan that forms part of the current RBC Cycling Strategy?
We talked about this at the last forum meeting. The infrastructure plan is about linking communities for local progress as improvement for future investment. As you know, we’re going through a period of austerity, so the best way to get enough money is to come up with a plan to achieve this, and then to approach businesses to contribute towards particular items which could move the project forward.
But the way to do this is via the Cycle Forum. I was a bit disappointed to read in one of your articles you were finding it difficult to find pedestrian groups to tell us how to use the shared space, which I don’t think we could avoid in certain areas.
How do you think we could find pedestrian groups? How could we incite people to join and become interested in providing that input as a pedestrian?
It’s difficult to say. I only know that outside of Reading there are groups, such as a walking group that’s started up in Tilehurst. I just need to try and engage with these people and find out how they feel about doing this together.
We could extend this to find out the situation outside some of our schools where the roads are very congested. The schools’ travel plans should try and encourage children to cycle or walk to school rather than always turn up by car.
I write for a local newsletter in Dee Park; we ought to encourage some more articles and engage with other local magazines, to get more people engaged and give us their ideas.
Are you aware of the Space for Cycling campaign being promoted by Cycling UK (formerly the CTC)? [Debs is given a copy of the Guide for Decision Makers.]
These are things I need to become more aware of. This is interesting, because we’ve got some busy spaces here. I know that some of the cycle groups don’t mind like shared spaces, so it’s a question of finding…
Well, it depends who they share the space with. Leisure cyclists are usually quite slow and don’t cause a problem, whereas commuter cyclists can’t share with pedestrians because they go a lot faster. They’ve got to get from A to B in a certain amount of time for them to catch a train or get to work.
That’s interesting using that design [points to the picture in Cambridge in the Guide]. That design is going in by London Street, where the zebra crossing goes over London Street that goes over the other half that goes into the Oracle. We’re putting in that design where you’ve got the separate cyclist route that links up to the river, and then the cycle route through the Oracle, so they’re putting the pedestrians and cycling separately side by side.
How much will be implemented – will it be that small area, or will it be trialled over a bigger area?
Obviously we’ve just had the plans come through for it, but it will be on both sides. I think along the NCN422 route there is also another crossing on the next section that’s going on the other side of Berkeley Avenue, where there will be more crossings like that, so it would be interesting to see what happens.
The Space for Cycling Campaign encourages Local Authorities to commit to spending a meaningful amount of the Transport budget on cycling. Is this something you think RBC could sign up to?
That is a question really for Councillor Page about budgeting on items like that. As far as our budget is concerned, we’ve been pushed under so much austerity I wouldn’t be able to say which money is available.
Have you got any influence over Councillor Page?
I’m a member of his committee. He listens to my opinion.
Would he actually implement anything you suggest?
It’s not down to just one person, it’s a whole committee, so everybody gets an input. David and I both attend his Lead Council briefings on a fortnightly basis, so we certainly give our input.
So it’s purely up to financial constraints?
Financial constraints are very, very tight, but then there are various ways of applying for extra finances. If you come up with ideas, then you can apply to implement those ideas. I think it gets very confusing with finances, because you don’t have just one big bucket you can dip into. You might think: right, I’m going to spend this here, but then there are constraints and you can win pockets of money that can only be spent on certain projects.
But for cycling there certainly is a commitment to improving cycling as far as we are concerned.
What would be your advice for engaging with Councillors who are not sympathetic to cycling?
Some councillors we cycle with – I’m trying to think who wouldn’t be sympathetic – I can’t think of anyone else who isn’t sympathetic to cycling…
Do you know any who regularly cycle?
Yes, one of our best friends Councillor Pierce cycles with us, and Councillor Gittings – his son cycles professionally in America – it might be the councillors who have children might cycle a lot.
Can people come along to the Cycle Forum and watch – it isn’t a closed meeting? If they wanted to come and listen in, they could?
I don’t know, I don’t think it is. I can confirm that to you – I don’t see why not, because the more input we get, the more ideas we get.
And the more points of view you get as well.
My position as Chair is that is what I’m there to oversee. That’s why I think it’s better that Councillor Page is separated from that role because I can conduct the meeting with different groups giving their input, following the agenda and everybody gets their say.
And it’s supposed to meet quarterly?
And when’s the next one?
The last one was October, so round about January or February.
Editor’s Note: You can read the latest Cycle Forum minutes on the RCC website by going to https://www.readingcyclecampaign.org.uk/cycle-forum