Mike Penning, the portly roads minister, needs to be bound and gagged and dumped on the M6, at 3am, just north of Carlisle. I’m not advocating the death of a minister of the Crown; Penning would be perfectly safe for quite some time because this massively wide motorway is pretty much empty at 3am. Maybe after surviving unscathed Penning would come to understand there’s plenty of roadspace to go around, it’s how we use it in peak times that’s the problem.
At a transport select committee hearing two weeks ago Penning – and his LibDem partner in crime, Norman Baker – said there could be no national funding for cycle paths because this is a “local issue” but Penning is more than happy to pour money down the drain for “strategically important national roads”. One such road scheme to get the green light is just a few miles from where I live. Tons of extra motorised traffic has been generated thanks to the building of the second Tyne tunnel; the Silverlink junction where the A19 meets Newcastle’s Coast road is at gridlock at peak times of the day.
At night, like the M6 and like much of the UK’s road network, it’s empty.
The width of the road is plenty wide enough for maybe 18 hours out of the day; the bottlenecks occur sporadically, and at wholly expected times. Instead of managing this bottleneck with traffic mitigation measures, national Government will be spending £170m of taxpayers’ cash (that’s our money they’re wasting) on widening this junction for a few people for just a few hours per day. This is lunacy. The expected “congestion easing” won’t happen. As is extremely well known, extra road capacity leads to induced demand and any improvement in “traffic flow”, in peak times, will be soon swallowed up.
Even if an increased number of cars are speeded through this junction for a few weeks (and that’s all that £170m buys you) there will then be a crush somewhere else on the network. More and wider roads will be needed elsewhere on the network. But there’s precious little space for this, and there could never be enough cash to satisfy the unthinking demands from drivers for fast, empty arterial roads during the so-called “rush hour.”
The private motorcar is damn useful, but only when there’s just a few of them dotting around. When there are millions of the things, they’re not so convenient. And the Department for Transport projects that millions more private cars will join the swell over the next 25 years. Not learning from past mistakes, and somehow hoping failed solutions will work “this time”, is madness. Yet it’s a shared madness, a group hallucination that’s costly, wasteful and, quite quickly, ineffective.
Check out the crazed comments from local politicians and business leaders who believe spending £170m on one road junction – just one road junction – is money well spent:
North Tyneside elected mayor Linda Arkley said she was “absolutely delighted” at the multi-million-pound ‘investment package’.
“I have been on at them for this for long time, it’s good to see Mike got the message,” she told my local newspaper, which champions more roads as a central part of its editorial focus.
Ms Arkley added: “We have so many opportunities for growing this area…we need to know that congestion is not going to be an obstacle to that.”
The North East Chamber of Commerce has also campaigned hard for “upgrade” cash. Chief Executive, James Ramsbotham, said the £170m-for-one-road-junction news was “a real victory for us and our partners who campaigned alongside us.”
He added: “It is great news for the region as it will ease congestion and complement the recent Tyne Tunnel upgrade on this important strategic route for both commuters and businesses. If the Government is serious about rebalancing the economy, future investment should be prioritised for schemes just like this to enable the North East to increase its contribution to UK Plc.
Ramsbotham then said:
“Hopefully, other regional infrastructure priorities such as the essential upgrade of the Western Bypass will receive similar appraisal in the future.”
This should set off alarm bells. The Western Bypass was built just a few years ago to “ease congestion”. It did. For a few days. After that it became stupidly congested during peak hours. “Upgrading” a relatively new road that was meant to ease congestion but that didn’t is sheer unadulterated lunacy.
The Western Bypass is quiet at 3am. We don’t need more roads, we need less motorised vehicles using them. Road pricing would quickly remove unnecessary journeys, but would be an unpopular move. Waving a chequebook and throwing good money after bad is what politicians do best. Here’s Penning in vote-for-me fantasy-land:
“We are committed to tackling congestion, keeping traffic moving and supporting the UK economy, putting in money where it’s most needed and where the public will get a good return on investment.”
This is the same minister who won’t fund cycle paths, and who won’t listen to the growing number of organisations who tell him that concreting Britain is not a long-term answer to congestion. Penning wants a good return on investment? He should talk to his colleagues in the Department for Health. They’re looking at a future where health costs associated with inactivity are set to sky-rocket. Get people out of their cars and moving their fat arses. Scrap the multi-billion pound roads programme and spend it on mitigation measures instead.
I was in two minds whether to load this particular clip to YouTube. Not because of worries about copyright, I don’t think the BBC will mind too much, but more because (a) I’m wearing yellow shorts (b) I make a right fool of myself and (c) see (a) and (b).
The news clip is from BBC Look North, aired on 3rd August 1987. I was a cub editor on long-gone ‘Bicycle Times’ (there were no mountain bike mags at this time) and Peter Darke had only recently started his bike shop in Sunderland (it’s still going strong).
We had started the first British mountain bike team. Because we could. And nobody else had. There was a British Muddy Fox squad and all the other teams at the first MTB World Championships, held later in August in that balmy summer of 1987, were trade teams too.
We had snazzy white jerseys, made by Been Bag, and flock printed with logos. Sublimation printing wasn’t widely used at that point. SunTour was the team’s major sponsor and Rohan provided the official team clothing. I still have the team jersey; the Rohan ‘Bags’ (with large, vinyl letters down the side) are long gone.
Check out the video for gory close-ups of Shimano Biopace chainrings (oh, gullible us), chainstay-mounted u-brakes and my Pink Thing. This was an all-steel touring mountain bike made for me by frame builder Dave Yates. It had steel, integrated racks, front and rear. It was my touring MTB, heaven knows why I was riding it in this TV clip. I can’t remember what I rode on at the world championships but I do know I punctured and Did Not Finish. I rode for the British Mountain Bike Team? Yup. As co-manager it was a tough selection process but I managed to find space on the team for myself.
Our best finisher came 33rd. Helmets off to Lester Noble, who later went on to found Orange Mountain Bikes. Talking about helmets, we wore them at the World Championships, but dunno if it was compulsory back then. The pic below shows what we used. I probably secured provision of them, I certainly scammed a load of other kit so must have bagged a helmet deal too. Maybe they hadn’t turned up in time for the TV news appearance?
I’m dredging up all this MTB history because next month there’s to be a 25th anniversary weekend celebrating the first ever MTB world championships. I shall be attending.
Also attending will be MTB legends Gary Fisher and Joe Breeze. I know these guys now. Back then I was 22 and still wet behind the ears when it came to publicity (as the video attests). Listening to my claims that the Brits would wipe the floor with the rest of the world is pretty groan worthy.
The winner on the day was Ned Overend. He’s planning to attend the reunion, too. Should be a scream.