29th of June 2014 saw the return of Southampton Sky Ride (or maybe Sky Ride Southampton, depending who is doing the promotion). The official tally is 11000 cyclists that took to Southampton's streets to experience the rare feeling of cycling in Southampton city centre without the pressure of traffic, buses or errant pedestrians.
A good thing? Of course. Could it be better? Obviously. In the event that the organisers are unfortunate enough to read this, my comments...
The Sky Ride was my first opportunity to properly test my new camera. It seemed to handle Southampton's high quality surfaces relatively well. A review of it will follow in due course. With relevance to here, it means I can post a nice YouTube of a lap around the route:
Southampton Sky Ride Route 2014 (from Sky Ride)
This year we had a different route to last. Instead of looping the city centre and going for a jaunt around the Docks, the organisers took the decision to route the event up through the bottom half of the Common instead. Ostensibly, this is a nicer route. It's green, it's away from the roads (so didn't need to inconvenience the poor oppressed Southampton driver) and there's lots of open space for events and event-related things. Personally I found it more boring as you couldn't nose about in a bit of the city you never normally get to see, but I can see the appeal. However, as you may sense from the fact I'm blogging at all, I have issues.
As I mentioned above, the nosey part of me was unsatisfied seeing as everywhere the route went is already publicly accessible.
The main hubs of activity, as last year, were in Houndwell Park (the southernmost one, marked "My Journey Village") and Guildhall Square. These areas were buzzing. So much in fact, it was hard to get through them if you weren't stopping. It's a testament to the success of the event. But why, then were the activities on the Common so limited? There was a huge amount of space and a handful of things going on around the "Tricks and Tunes" marker on that map. The return stretch on the south of the Common was devoid of activity at all. So much space and so little done with it. It would have brought much more buzz to that end of the route and even people not cycling around the Common could have gotten involved.
And finally of course, there was no ramp this year. Everyone loved the ramp. If you're reading this and don't know about the ramp, well then I can't tell you. That's something special for Southamptonites who did last year's Sky Ride :-)
Again I was generally impressed. I would suggest it was an improvement on last year but I had no criticism of last year's lot either. Marshals were professional, cheerful and engaged. My one gripe is with the factthat in a few places (London Road and The Avenue), the marshals were sometimes located in obstructive locations. This wouldn't have been an issue if it weren't for the next section. But in any case, A+.
It's observable throughout but in particular the stretch in the video from 13:30 through around 19:00 which is going north on The Avenue. Note that to the right of the frame, there is live traffic. That's right, on what might be the most over-generously proportioned piece of road infrastructure in the entire of Southampton, we didn't even get a carriageway closure.
Now I take issue as well with Hulse Road (31:00 to 33:00) but here at least there is a need to maintain access for the residents of that road (as indeed I was some years ago), even if we apparently can't clear the obstructively parked cars. But on (the main part of) The Avenue (see map) there are no frontage properties.
In fact, if you look at the aerial, you'll see a three lane expanse northbound and a three lane expanse southbound (around "Asylum Green"... who knew?). Granted, the nearside lane is of no use to drivers (bus lane or a holdover from the past) but there is still a perfect pair of two lane carriageways. I would like to know why we couldn't get a full closure on the northbound carriageway and have the northbound traffic run in contraflow on the southbound carriageway. I would like to know why, north of Stag's Gate (the junction with Lodge Road), we were relegated to the already troublesome footway/shared-use facility on the east of the road whilst we maintained the full three traffic lanes on the carriageway (note the cycle-jam at 18:00). I would also like to know why, given all this, nobody bothered to even trim back the ridiculously overgrown vegetation which engulfs the cycle lane on the eastern side of The Avenue. And finally, I would like to know why we were still providing segregated pedestrian space with all the cyclists on the tightest points of this stretch (19:08) which have no frontage and when we have a wide footway on the other side of the road.
It would have been trivial to keep the southbound motor traffic to a single lane from Northlands Road, run it through temporary three-way signals at Lodge Road and have the northbound traffic run contraflow all the way up to Northlands Road. There is space to do it. The traffic impacts would frankly have been marginal compared to the sort of congestion the London Road x Brunswick Place temporary lights were causing. The traffic management costs would have been marginal and the effect would have been to allow cycles to use the highway and give them more space than that poor excuse for a shared-use facility we have at the moment. Which, as I understood it, was the point of the whole endeavour.
Even if we ignored this bit (despite its sticking in the craw), the rest of The Avenue is another case in point. Now, clearly the existing paved routes through the parks and the Common are of an existing fixed width and we aren't going to widen them for the event but to not close that last lane on The Avenue says that it is worth more to keep it for traffic than it is for the space it would give the cyclists for this event. What sort of a message does that send to the people who showed up? The people who might be convinced that they could cycle to where they want to go. The people we are trying to get out of their cars and the kids we are trying to set into good habits. The fact that we couldn't even bring ourselves to give the impression that we were going to try properly, really is disappointing.
Similarly, why run two-way on London Road rather than use Bedford Place for example?
I don't know what literature the organisers were looking at but, given it is my research area, I can assure the reader that even the most ambitious extrapolations do not claim that you could comfortably get over 10000 cycles per hour down a 3.5m traffic lane. A 3.5m traffic lane that is partially obstructed with separator islands, marshals, bollards and pedestrian railing. Pedestrian railing by the way that was the only thing separating hundreds of cyclists from 30mph moving traffic. Clearly, we weren't going to spring for some water-filled barrier either. You can see the effect of this in the very slow speeds in most of the route and the stop-start conditions at a number of places.
As ever, we had the opportunity here and we missed it. B-
Despite the tone of the above, I am grateful to Southampton City Council, Sky and the other sponsors for putting on this event. Regardless of the marginal (if any) impact it has on actual cycling levels, it gets families out into town and on their bikes. It gives some (limited) visibility to cycling in Southampton and it is a well run and nice day out.
My issues here run to planning. The mentality behind the approach is clear to see: How can we put on this event whilst causing the minimum impact on traffic? Network Management Duty or not, events (particularly on a Sunday) provide a cover for doing things we otherwise wouldn't as they are only temporary affairs. We *can* inconvenience the people who insist on driving into Southampton on a Sunday, but won't follow signed routes around the M271. We *can* provide the space for cycling we refuse to do on any other day of the year. We *can* do things in the spirit of the event. I mean, it's not like we're doing any of these things for the other 364 days of the year, is it?
Overall then: a solid B, good effort, could do better. I hope next year we do.