It’s been a right 2020 of a year. I mean, clearly the big news is The Plague, which looks to have killed somewhere over 65,000 people in the UK:
At the start of the lockdown the supermarkets got stripped bare, and I believe there was a thriving black market for toilet rolls. Then there was the whole working from home thing – something that bosses up and down the land had sworn wasn’t practical overnight became the “New Normal” (I apologise for the use of that phrase). So we’ve all dived into Teams, Work WhatsApp groups, and Zoom – or to give it its full name, That Bastard Flipper Zoom. We’ve had to try and coach our parents into using the supercomputers they carry in their pocket for more than just Soduko and texting. I’ve gone from riding 100 miles a week just to get to work and back, to having to find the motivation to go out for leisure rides just to maintain some semblance of fitness.
There’ve been upsides too though. The weather on the whole has been great, and during the first month of Lockdown, there was virtually no motor traffic. We had Daughter-on-Sea back home for a few months. Once we could get flour again, there was baking. Lots of baking. The best thing though was that when exercise was a restricted luxury of just an hour a day, people really took to it. Seriously – Daughter-on-Sea and I were going out for a ride once a week at about seven in the morning (taking a flask of OMG Coffee and some breakfast with us), and I’ve never seen so many people out running, walking, cycling, or generally just staring at the view.
The icing on the cake for me has been the roll out of the Emergency Pop-Up Bike Lanes. These have been rolled out all over the country, with councils given the instruction to re-allocate road space from cars to bikes. The logic is that as lockdown eases, there’ll still be social distancing on public transport, so the risk is that people will take to their cars in preference, leading to gridlock. There’s also the challenge that a lot more people are just out in the fresh air, and for them to maintain social distancing, more space is needed.
In North Tyneside there’ve been some high street schemes which have largely been shouted down before they had a chance to get going, and an entire 5km strip of the road along the sea front. This is my street, and the transformation has been incredible.
To hit the government targets for speed of roll-out, it’s been done in the first instance with road cones. Lots of road cones. I mean seriously, it looks like someone turned over two pages of the map when they were supposed to be coning off a lane of the A1 for resurfacing. But this is just the first phase, and apparently there are a whole bunch of Orcas and Wands heading our way.
The effect has been transformational. On the night the cones were first put out, the traffic level dropped instantaneously. You could hear the gentle lapping of the waves and oyster catchers even though the tide was out.
The route has been dubbed the Sunrise Cycleway, and I know I’ve always said “build it and they will come”, but even I’ve been amazed at how popular it is. There are people riding it from sunrise (before 5am in these parts at this time of year) through to well after dark. It’s good enough for the Lycra Roadies to use, but also safe enough for newbies, people who haven’t been on bikes for decades, and really very young children to use. When I open the window now, the sound I most love to hear is the burble of children chatting to their parents as they wobbble along.
Of course, not everyone is in favour. There have been the usual complaints:
- “Nobody uses it” (about 25% of all traffic along the sea front is now bicycles. TWENTY FIVE PERCENT!!!)
- “It’ll mean ambulances can’t get through” (the cycleway is largely wide enough for an ambulance to use, thereby avoiding any cars that’d be in the way)
- “It punishes the disabled / elderly” (I’ve seen people riding handcycles, and lots of snowy-white-haired people cycling. For anyone that HAS to drive, you can still get to anywhere along the coast by car. For the entire 5km length, only five parking spaces have been lost)
- “It slows traffic down, which creates pollution” (It’s significantly reduced overall motor traffic volumes)
- “How will I get the kids to school?” (If you really HAVE to drive them, you still can. The route may be a little less direct, so allow an extra few minutes)
- “Traffic displaced from the coast will cause gridlock” (There were some teething problems up around the Spanish City, and the council fixed these within about a week. Thinking more broadly though, just as creating capacity for cars seems to magically summon them up from the Hells, making it harder to drive quite so easily seems to banish them back to the Underworld.)
The thing is, those Against A Thing tend to make the most noise. And councils (especially ward councillors) tend to listen to noise. So make no mistake: this brilliant cycleway is at risk. It could very easily be taken out in the winter when its initial experimental period ends.
I have other reasons to support this route. Yes, it’s got people on their bikes. But the biggest benefit has been the reduction in traffic volumes and speeds. The coast is no-longer appealing to the hot-hatch people who used to like to drive up and down the road.
I had personal experience of the consequences of this in June 2014. I was the first on the scene of a fatal crash at the end of our street. I was the one trying to get the people who’d come out of their houses to see what was going on to stop any passing traffic until the paramedics arrived – I didn’t want a second crash caused by a rubbernecking driver. I was the one sending people down to the other side of the railings to see if there were any other bodies. I was the one who got the dead man moved (despite people protesting that you shouldn’t move an injured person) so we could get the motor tricycle off the woman who was pinned beneath it unable to breathe and slowly suffocating. I was the one who continued with CPR on the obviously dead driver until the ambulance arrived. I’m the one who could still see the blood between the paving stones for a week after, despite the hosing down the fire brigade had given the scene.
This was not an isolated incident. There have been several other serious crashes and fatalities within a mile or so of where I live. Several of my neighbours have had parked cars written off by joy-riders or the lethally inattentive.
The Sunrise Cycleway has changed the game on this stretch of road. It’s calmer, quieter, and safer. It’s become a place that’s full of life and the joy of children. Don’t let it go back to how it was before – let’s use the changes that the pandemic has forced on us be the start of building something better instead.