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The Comedy of Errors

Cycling in Nottingham: Cllr Jon Collins

19 October 15 words: Cycling
We had a natter with the city council leader about how we can get Nottingham's cycle lanes up to speed, given he's an avid cyclist himsen
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Collins got into cycling five years ago when he undertook a Paris-Nottingham charity event, and he’s now a regular summer rider on a Cannondale Supersix and, in winter, a Cannondale Caad 10. His town ride is an eighties, steel-framed Raleigh and he completes his fleet with a time-trial turbo trainer. Yet while many cyclists see Collins’ passion for cycling as a positive, they also ask why, under his leadership, the cycle route network in this ‘City of Raleigh’ has been second rate for so long...

To what degree does the current £6.1m Nottingham Cycle City scheme, which includes building two new segregated cycling routes, reflect your own concerns?  
The technical work is done by the officers and the transport portfolio holder has cycling as his brief, so my input is about how important is this? Well, it’s important – it’s why we bid for the money. Secondly, it’s about balancing the importance of cycling with cars and other forms of road use, and the priority we give on road space to cycling. And we will give priority to cyclists.

If you weren’t leader would that programme still be going ahead?
Er, quite possibly. Have I had an impact on it? Yes I have. Would someone else have had that impact? I don’t know. This is a big organisation. And there is a political aspect to it as it’s a manifesto commitment – I was keen for it to be in the manifesto. I am not one for personality politics. I am always reluctant to judge whether things happen based on individual personalities. Ultimately, we’re all part of a team.

Many local cyclists also ask why, you being a cyclist yourself, it has taken so long to get serious about improving cycle routes and cycle safety in the city?
I think you have to put this into the context of Nottingham being good at public transport. There’s been a very strong emphasis on the bus and tram network and then, up to a point, pedestrians. There should have been more emphasis on bikes, but that has shifted in the past four or five years. Attitudes to cycling have changed a lot in that time. We have loads of cyclists here and the fact that they’re on pavements, that there’s the expectation that they should get off at every junction, push their bikes over chicanes, ride down canal towpaths and then cross some gravel path on an industrial estate… well, there was a point at which all that was thought to be acceptable and things have now changed dramatically.

Can you pinpoint when that changed?
It happened nationally. It was partly driven by sheer congestion in London and the fact that so many people have decided to cycle on the road. When you get a critical mass of people, there is pressure on transport to make things move. I don’t think we’ve had that critical mass in Nottingham but I do think we’ve had a political change of direction where people have said, “You know what, cycling is important – we need to make it easier.” In terms of density, there are a lot of cycle routes here, but they’re not appropriate for people to commute in and out of town. They’re almost recreational routes.

I’m keen on using the money we’ve got to make cycling an integral part of the transport network – not second rate, but with clear routes, prioritised where appropriate, properly swept and lit, without potholes. All cities have a whole legacy of changes in attitudes to cars and public transport to get across because the design of cities reflects those changes of opinion. The car was king for a while, when Maid Marian Way was built. Then the focus was on buses and public transport, so you have bus routes.

And now it’s the Age of the Bike?
[laughs] That’s sounds like a cliché.

Does being for cycling mean being anti-car?
No. Look. I get a reputation for being anti-car, yet I drive a Subaru Impreza and I like driving. I don’t drive around town because I don’t see the point when I can walk, use public transport or a bike – these are the choices that are open to people depending on what they do and what their job is. A lot of people don’t see that they have that choice and we have to make sure they understand that they do. If I’m in my car, I feel safe on most roads in the city and it’s not unreasonable that cyclists should feel equally safe using those same roads. That is the challenge. So believe me, I am not anti-car.

What improvements do you think Nottingham needs urgently to improve the cycling experience?
The Big Wheel concept is good and reasonably legible, but the routes are too convoluted and too recreational. The challenges are proper, safe, segregated commuting routes. People should be able to choose to cycle into town even if they have no cycling experience. It should be cheap as chips and easy. People need to feel safe and we’re a long way away from that. But if I was to pick a priority, I would do cross-city routes across town.

Do you intend to make it illegal for cars to park in bike lanes?
We want clear, segregated cycling lanes and they won’t be that if people are parking in them. So we will have to take that into account and have proper parking restrictions.

So you are saying that you are willing to criminally enforce bike lanes?
Yeah. It’s not the case that we will automatically implement this across the whole city. Look, in the work we are doing on specific commuter cycle routes, we will have to make sure we have appropriate restrictions on parking to ensure they are safe cycling routes.

I’m thinking more of current problem areas such as Gregory Boulevard and the like, where cycle lanes are often blocked by parked vehicles and there’s no law to stop them...
Things can’t stay as they are. We will have to look at how best to achieve it but I’m entirely across the issue and no, you can’t have people just parking up wherever they want.

What, ultimately, is your aim in terms of Nottingham’s reputation as a cycling city?
I want us to build on the Raleigh heritage because I think it’s a great brand. We’d love them to move back. I do think it would be in their and our interests to have stronger links. Cycling is partly about history, heritage and how that projects into the future. Raleigh has lost a bit of that over the years, but I think they’ve started to recover an element of that.

Some of their top-end bikes are extremely good, but there haven’t been enough of them available to buy. It’s been easier to buy a Bianchi than a Raleigh in Nottingham, although Cycle Republic is now stocking them. While it’s not for me to tell Raleigh how to run their business, building on their ability with top-end bikes would be in their interest – reconnecting with Nottingham as part of that would be very important. It would be great if Raleigh relocated in terms of manufacturing, profile and as an outlet for their bikes. We’d love them back in the city. We’d help them find a site and the buildings to operate out of.

Has Raleigh approached the city council about this?
We’ve had that. We’ve talked to them about it.

Yeah. We’ve had discussions and the options are still open. They have made small steps in the direction I’ve talked about, but they could really put a motor under that. They’ve got tons of heritage stuff we could happily work with to showcase in the city. There’s the technical research which the universities are keen to collaborate on. Ultimately, it would be great for all that to develop further and have a clear end result.

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