Over twenty years ago, in those glorious days when the Chronicle was still a daily paper and had a variety of articles from freelance writers such as Bob Jennings and – dare I say it – myself, I wrote an article about a subject that was dear to my heart. I called it Bath, the Pedestrian Unfriendly City.
I have to declare an interest. I tended to walk or catch the bus when visiting town, even though I had the use of a car. It seemed easier to do so, than fiddle about looking for parking spaces, even before the council started charging for on street parking. Indeed, until fairly recently when a number of health problems have reduced my walks to strolls, I was also a keen walker in the countryside, and have completed a number of long distance footpaths. One of these, the Cotswold Way, begins (or ends) in Bath.
I long felt that the best way to see Bath was on foot, and I was happy to lead guided tours around the city. One of the chief complaints I heard about Bath from visitors was its lack of pedestrianised areas and its air quality. There is hardly a city in France that does not have a zone piétonne. These are often attractively laid out with fountains, open air cafés, but in many cases, light commercial vehicles and cars have the right to come through after business hours. Air quality in French cities therefore is much better than here.
People also moaned like mad at having to wait so long at controlled crossings, and when the lights changed, you needed to be fairly nippy to get across before the lights changed back. At first there were no lights in Queen Square, just a traffic island, but the situation for pedestrians is now actually worse. You have to wait for ages and then you have about five or six seconds – count them – before the lights change back. Before, you could cross in two stages, and the traffic went slower because car drivers had to be more cautious too. Now, at the first gleam of a green light, it’s foot down and go!
Even worse is the situation at George Street. This is a well-used crossing, and has always had a longish wait but recently it’s been made even longer. I don’t know what council officer or councillor thought this was a good idea, but the result is that even more walkers get impatient and dodge through the cars. If there’s an accident there, then Bath and North East Somerset Council will be culpable for having made this lunatic decision.
When I wrote the article, some places had no crossings at all. Some still don’t. At North Parade, there were no pedestrian lights. You had to take your life in your hands to cross Pierrepont Street or North Parade Road at the corner. Even crazier, there were no pedestrian crossings at Churchill Bridge, so anyone using the Avon Walkway, joining at Widcombe, had to cross four lanes of traffic to reach the continuation along by Green Park.
So I put forward many of my complaints and remedies into the article and sent it off. A week or so after it was printed, I was contacted by the council. There was going to be a conference on pedestrians in Bath and would I like to attend. I asked if this was as a result of my article. No, it was not, I was told very firmly – it had long been planned. A few days later I was called by someone else to check if I was coming. This time I was crafty. I innocently pointed out that it was at very short notice. ‘Yes,’ said the person on the other end of the line, ‘but some woman wrote an article for the Chronicle about Bath being pedestrian unfriendly. It’s thrown the department into a panic and they felt it had to be dealt with.’
Intrigued, I went along. There were several presentations, but it soon became apparent that the council did not want to listen to what pedestrians had to say. I think most people were horrified to find that the council planned walking routes. Now the whole joy of walking a city is that it is anarchic. You can walk where you like. You can take a short cut or explore little alleyways. You can cross the road where you will. That, it seems was to be challenged. There would be walking routes in the same way there are cycle routes.
It did not take long for there to be uproar. There was a brave attempt by the organisers to limit questions and we were definitely not supposed to be critical. One officer lost his temper in the middle of questions, saying he had not come here to be challenged on his plans. He was presenting them and that’s how it was going to be. He then seized his notes and stormed off.
There was a real arrogance about what was happening, and this was manifested in the attitude of the officer for disabled access, who informed us that only wheelchair users – and he was one – understood the problem. This was deeply unfortunate, as in my view wheelchair access is still far below par – notably at the station – but he soon put the backs up of many in the audience. Like others there, I had a member of the family who was by then using a wheelchair, so I had pushed it around the city and knew the difficulties. Moreover, it was while I was chairman of the Mayor’s Guides that two guides set out to identify the issues faced by wheelchairs users and the lack of dropped kerbs. This study resulted in improved access. So to be told I was ignorant of the problem was frankly insulting, and I was not alone in being upset. This attitude of the council that it always knows best and its failure to communicate with those affected has also resulted in problems for the visually handicapped. A change of texture in paving at crossings, with pimpled stones, is an excellent idea but no one asked the visually handicapped about the size of the pimples. The council has opted for large ones, and one registered blind person said she regularly stubs her toes on them.
Eventually the meeting, which I realise was well-intentioned, broke up in bad-tempered disarray. However, I was called in to see a councillor about crossings, and this did result in crossings at North Parade and –after a very long wait – crossings at Churchill Bridge.
Now, with the increase in cycling, matters have got worse again for pedestrians. This is sad, because cyclists and pedestrians should unite in battling the internal combustion engine lobby. It is not the fault of cyclists. They have got themselves organised, with articulate spokesmen, but the council’s efforts to placate them has resulted in conflict and occasionally a muddle for both cyclists and pedestrians. Take the crossing from Westgate Street to Kingsmead Square. No one has any idea about who has priority. I thought that in 20 mph zones pedestrians had priority – and if they don’t, they should have. In Vancouver, pedestrians have complete priority. Stop at the kerbside and the traffic screeches to halt to allow you to cross.
I was finally provoked into writing this update on Pedestrian Unfriendly Bath because, on Twitter, a well-known cycling campaigner in Bath, with whom, as far as his campaign for cleaner air in Bath goes, I am in complete agreement, said that cyclists were the bottom of the heap. I said they were not – pedestrians were. He was livid and told me to take it back – that it was not worthy of me.
I will not take it back. It’s true. He said we don’t have to battle with HGVs. I beg to differ. Living, as I do, near the Warminster Road, I am always worried that one will drive up over the pavement as I’m walking along. Skid marks in the grass and on the pavement show that this is a not infrequent occurrence. We have to cross roads in places where the council has ignored the possibility that people will wish to cross, so we do battle with cars, HGVs, white van man and – yes – cyclists. One black spot is Westgate Street. With its narrow pavements and the refusal of the council to limit loading times, this is a nightmare for pedestrians and cyclists. Now, the HGVs have destroyed the kerb so often so the council has decided just to tarmac the kerb edge. This is dangerous – it’s so easy for someone to slip off the edge.
It’s as though pedestrians don’t matter. Where work is going on at the Abbey, the hoarding has made it very narrow by the stops for university and open top buses. First Bus and Bath Open Top Buses are not allowed to move their bus stops from there, though the open top bus people have done their best. Only B&NES can sanction this, but in a twitter discussion I had over this, @bathnes remained determinedly silent. At busy times, when there are queues at the stops, passers-by are left with no option but to step into the road, especially people with pushchairs. I doubt if there is room for a wheelchair at all.
The irony is that we are all pedestrians at some time or another. I firmly believe that if you get a city right for pedestrians, it will soon improve for cyclists and ultimately for everyone. I am unhappy with the notion that Bath Christmas Market – which I think is beginning to be past its sell-by date anyway – should now spread up Milsom Street, but at least it would prove that Milsom Street could be pedestrianised. We could have a car-free central spine running from Southgate to the top of Milson Street. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
I would make waiting time for those at crossings shorter, and would introduce more crossings, such as at the bottom of Gay Street. These could just be zebra crossings – as could the ones all round Sydney Gardens. Queen Square has had the side openings to the central garden restored – but try reaching them if you’re on foot, through the lanes of rushing traffic. The Square was never meant to be a roundabout. Let’s reroute the traffic to restore it to being a quiet restful place.
I would introduce restricted loading times. Other cities do this – again French cities nearly all do this, as do many parts of London, so why not in Bath? Give pedestrians priority in 20mph zones – where this happens it has been shown it slows traffic down and reduces speeding offences. Again, if Vancouver can do it as a matter of course, we can here.
Planning should clamp down on the fad among architects for shallow steps instead of a slope liek those at Brunel Square and Sawclose. Not only is this a real handicap for wheelchair users, they are downright hazardous for the visually handicapped. It’s often hard to see them if you have normal eyesight. They are an unnecessary nuisance, and may well contravene the disabled access acts.
I know the cyclists feel put upon, and I agree that in many places, especially on London Road, they have had a rough deal. But, dear cyclists, don’t start treating us pedestrians like the enemy. And don’t forget, at least a car coming up behind someone walking makes a noise. Cyclists are silent, so if you’re behind someone on foot, they don’t know you’re there if you don’t ring your bell. If you’re campaigning for better conditons for cyclists, stop and think how it will affect those on foot. It may not be the benefit you think it is. Most walkers very much preferred the canal towpath before the cycle-friendly surface was put on it. However, it has improved it for wheelchair users so, by and large, it’s a plus.
In the show Oklahoma, there’s a song, The Farmer and the Cowboy should be friends. The cyclist and pedestrian should be friends. Let’s work together towards a better solution, and towards defeating the mad petrol-heads who see any attempt to improve life for other road users as an attack on their personal liberty and who appear to have the council under their thumb. Sadly, Bath remains seriously unfriendly towards pedestrians. The sooner someone in Bath and North East Somerset Council starts listening to us, the better.