Let’s not squander this opportunity to re-think our public spaces

An Open Letter to my Councillors, 21 July 2020

A strange thing has happened recently. There has been an outbreak of consensus between the UK Government, the Scottish Government and Fife Council about the need to create space for people to cycle and walk more. We always knew it was good for the nation’s well-being and environment, but we now know it will help us in the fight to suppress Covid-19.

The ‘Spaces for People’ project managed by Sustrans is focused on making travel safer, and proposals have been put forward to create temporary infrastructure to allow people more room to get about on foot and on wheels.

Yet my local St Andrews Citizen is full of complaints, calling for a halt to the plans, pleading for no change, lest it might affect people’s ability to drive to and park in the town centre. “It will kill the town”, “people won’t come”, they say.

This view doesn’t represent everyone, and I am writing this to make my voice heard.

I live in St Andrews and regularly cycle into and around town. During lockdown, taking advantage of the quieter roads, I also cycled on the roads with my young children. I’m sure you noticed the streets teaming with families on bikes during lockdown. How many of them have you noticed are still there now that the cars are back?

Only last Sunday in town, we lived the familiar experience of cars passing by way too close and way too fast, rode past traffic jams backed up on Bell and South Streets pumping out toxic fumes and noise, cars parking dangerously on pavements, or making impatient u-turns at the West Port. Navigating sometimes narrow pavements during tourist season is difficult at the best of times, but add in the complications of social distancing limiting space in shops, and causing queues down the street, and we seem to be rapidly running out of available space.

The proposals to close roads in the town centre, widen pavements and build pop-up cycle lanes are not about shutting economic activity down, they are about using limited space differently. By dedicating space for private vehicles, we are essentially denying the public the additional space they need right now.

Making more space for people to cycle and walk is likely to enliven the town centre, making it a more communal, happier environment to be in. After months of lockdown, we desperately need public spaces where we can feel safe enough to feel like we can socialise without feeling like we are compromising public health.

The opposition to these proposals are borne from an old-fashioned view that people have a right to park their cars at the door of every shop they visit. Not only is that not right, its not fair, not on those who either don’t have a car or who want to walk or cycle. While I know there are people who have mobility issues, I don’t think that’s everyone. Perhaps we could all benefit if we could park a little further away and stretch our legs a little more.

Yes, retail businesses in St Andrews are suffering, but high streets have been in decline for many years – the pandemic is only accelerating it. I’d rather we didn’t pin the death of the high street on a modest proposal to install temporary cycling and walking infrastructure in our town centres.

It’s written into national transport policy’s Transport Hierarchy that active travel should be prioritised. Please don’t tell me that it shouldn’t apply here now. If not here, then where? If not now, then when?

People have bought bikes and e-bikes in their droves during the lockdown. A June survey from Cycling Scotland revealed that of those who started cycling during lockdown, 50 per cent said it was because there was less traffic on the roads. 26 per cent said having more dedicated cycle paths would be the most likely change to encourage them to cycle once lockdown is lifted. The lockdown has changed habits and behaviours. Please let’s use the opportunity to give people what they need and want – safer space to cycle. And my bet is that if you build it, people will use it.

I am writing to you, Councillors, to ask you to be bold and not give in to a desire to maintain the status quo, but to take the massive opportunity to re-think our town and make it fit for the future. The proposals are temporary – if they don’t work, we can modify them. What an opportunity to try something new. We will never learn without trying.

Here’s a little story to finish with. Earlier in the year, at the school gates, I spoke to a Dad picking up his five-year old son. I asked where he had parked. “About a mile away”, was the answer. I was astounded. He had deliberately parked a mile away from school, factored in an additional 15 minutes to the journey so that they could incorporate a walk to the car. “I want him to get used to using his legs.” As a society, we can learn a lot from that.

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