When the current city council leadership took away planning decisions from our local Area Committees, it was commonly thought that these meetings would become very brief. This has not been the case, and certainly wasn’t on Monday night, when the two current local hot topics were under discussion: the Hills Road cycleway and the looming gloom of the Big Streetlight Switch-Off. In this article, I’ll cover the cycleway; more on the streetlights later in the week.
It was probably the best-attended South Area Committee meeting for a long time, with the public seats completely full. I know it’s “fair” to move the meeting around the three parts of the south of the city, but it’s easiest for most people when it takes place in Queen Edith’s, right in the middle. For once, we also had the appropriate council officer in attendance to discuss the issue of the day, in this case Mike Davies, Team Leader for Cycling Projects at Cambridgeshire County Council.
Not even half-way complete
Almost everyone in the room seemed to have a question about the Hills Road cycleway for Mr Davies. Fortunately, this meeting was excellently chaired by Councillor Russ McPherson – unlike some previous South Area Committee meetings, such as the one in February described by blogger Richard Taylor as “the most farce-ridden disheartening display of attempted democracy I’ve observed“. Most of the questions naturally concerned the inconvenience of a “nine-month project” which – after nine months – has not even been half-way completed. The west (northbound) side of the road appears to be nearly complete, but no work has been done on the east (southbound) side.
Mr Davies outlined the saga of the Hills Road cycleway so far. He reported that the scheme was approved by the County Council’s Economy and Environment Committee on 8 July 2014, and the detailed design completed in time for construction to begin on 26 January 2015. He said: “Progress in the first few months of the construction works was slower than expected due to delays in agreeing protection measures for utility services encountered, and a generally poor start by the subcontractor who had been appointed relatively late on. It was apparent early on that the original works programme of 37 weeks would be difficult to achieve, and clearly the programme provided was over-optimistic, reflecting the client’s original deadlines for completion associated with funding deadlines, rather than a realistic construction programme.
“Improvements in contractor performance and efficiency have been apparent in recent months, helped by additional labour, more efficient working methods and the allowance of a longer working window during school holidays. Progress is now more rapid, though the poor start has meant a completion date later than first hoped.”
Temporary surface left in place
His report continued: “Due to the specification of the red asphalt material that is being used as the final cycle lane running surface, it is only possible for the batching plant to produce approximately 80 tonnes of this material at any one time. This 80 tonnes equates to approximately 300 metres of cycle lane based on the current widths and thickness of the material being laid. Consequently we have to complete and make ready this kind of length prior to it being surfaced and so there have been lengths of temporary surface left in place for long periods of time.
“With an embargo on roadworks throughout December, realistic completion of the works is now set for March 2016. County officers are well aware that local members and residents have been dissatisfied with progress on the scheme, and in particular the long periods of time for which temporary surfaces have been in place. Officers have expressed their disappointment to the contractor at a senior level.”
Cones remain in place on otherwise completed parts of the cycleway because they are protecting the gap between the cycleway and pedestrian pavement which will eventually contain planted Sedum. This, apparently, will start to be introduced on Wednesday, after which the cones can be removed.
A major announcement from Mr Davies was that the southbound cycleway, when it is built, will allow for ducts which can eventually handle the free public wi-fi system already found in the city centre.
Questions from the public
We moved on to the questions from the public, which were taken in one huge batch. They included the following:
– “Why has the cycleway been left in such a state? Can we have assurance that the other side won’t be left in such a state?”
– “What are the financial implications of the overrun?”
– “Workers from contractors often don’t seem to be doing any work! What’s happening? On Saturday, of two teams observed, nearly all were doing no work.”
– “Will there be a continuation of the cycle path into the city, which (unlike Hills Road) really needs it?”
– “The cycleway couldn’t have been more inconvenient to residents, the way it’s been done. Can it be done better the other way?”
– “What are the Long Road and Hills Road intersection plans? If the cycleway is popular, it may introduce even more problems there.”
– “The pavement still needs to be done, and what’s happening to verges? How long will this all take?”
– “I understand a survey of cycle use was undertaken before the cycleway was started, but I expect the number of cyclists will go up because of other reasons. So will any evaluation account for that? This should not be branded a success just because numbers of cyclists on Hills Road increases”.
– “Will the pavement be restricted to pedestrians and if so, how will it be policed?”
– “Have councillors had visibility of spending? Is there a plan to stop development on the other side if the money won’t last?”
– “We were given assurances that sight lines through bus stops would be great, with no advertising, but they’ve got bright, garish advertising. Why? And who’s paying for it to be removed?”
– “Can we sign where it’s legal – and not – to cycle, to avoid confusion?”
– “What about the rubble dumps in Glebe Road and Cavendish Avenue – will the damage be fixed? Can contractors parking on verges and causing damage be made to park elsewhere?”
– “Could contractors be asked to switch engines off while sleeping?”
– “Is the shared use path, so much safer for small children, being removed?”
Questions from our councillors
We also had these questions from our local councillors:
Amanda Taylor: “I’m skeptical about a target of four months to finish side 1 and do all of side 2 with its larger number of junctions. Its not safe for pedestrians, cyclists or drivers, and it’s making it difficult to use buses. I want action on signage for cyclists, as well as parking on the cycleway. When are any double yellow lines coming?”
Zoe O’Connell: “Can we devise a way to stop pushing people out into road during the building?”
Tim Moore: “Pedestrians cross at traffic islands – will there be marking on the cycleway at these points? We need a way of seeing people at bus stops, so will there be good lighting, but not advertising?”
Viki Sanders: “Will the lighting of the street be made better to make the area safer?”
Mark Ashton: “Residents have been patient but needed more progress reports. If we’d had the cycle team here much earlier on, things would have been better. Can we learn from this? On this and future projects, can we have regular meetings and updates to avoid frustrations?”
Nick Avery: “Who decided on the Christmas work embargo?”
The Christmas roadworks embargo
Mr Davies took a deep breath and attempted to come up with the answers.
The Christmas roadworks embargo in Cambridge, he said, has come about over a number of years because of complaints from businesses. Hills Road is on the list of roads which are affected. He suggested that was that. As for keeping residents informed, he said that people have been able to contact the works team, and there have been local letter drops. Mr Davies had made himself available on the street for a while on Friday mornings, and offered to start this again, every Friday at 9am outside Homerton College.
He reported that the contractors are working to a ‘target cost’. This means that speed will maximise any profits. There would be exceptions for any circumstances outside their control, which would increase target cost. He was confident that “we are OK at the moment and the contractors will bear the expense of the delays. There was £4M of government money paying for 7 projects in Cambridgeshire, of which 4 have been done and came in under budget, so there is money in hand.
Mr Davies acknowledged that some temporary works have been unsafe and lessons will be learned for the southbound side. He also accepted there had been a lack of progress in the early stages, and a change of personnel had been needed to improve matters. The dual-use cycle path would be lost on the Homerton side, but he believed that the new, wide cycle lane should be good for children. Although footways will be for pedestrians, while the southbound side work was being done, the two way path facility will be left on west side. As for the necessity of the project in the first place, he said that even if existing arrangements for cycling on Hills Road were adequate at the moment, huge growth at Addenbrookes would have made them inadequate soon. The new cycle lanes will cope for a much longer period.
A major admission
Working more intelligently in sections may be possible, he said. The team were looking carefully at the plan for the southbound side. Independently from this project, as part of City Deal, one of the areas which will be looked at is the Long Road junction. He appreciates that both cyclists and pedestrians are abandoned there. Designs are being developed, and there will be consultations in February. The team are looking at all traffic flows before and after, including in the side roads, and they will be doing video monitoring of the bus stops.
Mr Davies then made a major admission. He said: “We did think we could put different sort of bus shelter in place on this project, without advertising. However, we did not know that there was a contract whereby we have to use the same type of shelter (with advertising), as in the rest of the city.”
Two representatives from the contractor, Skanska, then joined in. The first said: “I am very sorry for many of the problems highlighted. Productivity has improved but things have not caught up. We want to make sure the next phase of the project will be much more successful”. His colleague added: “We planned to have two gangs working together now, instead of one in front of the other. Given what’s been said tonight, this may cause problems, so we may have to review it. We need to have a look at the lighting, but can’t put columns in certain places yet, so we will look at temporary measures. I agree about leaving engines running, Skanska prides itself on being ‘green’, and this is an absolute no-no. We will address this. Only working vans should be on verges, and we will do another induction to address this. We are reviewing subcontractors at the moment. We are supposed to be using pedestrian-friendly barriers. The verges on side roads will be put right.”
No plans for a loading ban
Mr Davies returned to speak about the completion date for the project. “We can never give a complete guarantee”, he said, “but March is the target. We do need one”.
There will be double yellows painted as part of the scheme, he said. There were no plans for a loading ban (including one just for the morning peak) as this would require a huge number of signs and road markings to implement, which he was sure people would prefer to avoid. But it could follow in due course if wanted. Road markings will be put in as soon as each side is finished.
Given the confusion at previous South Area Committee meetings caused in part by not having the right (or any) council officer present, we must be grateful that Mike Davies appeared at this meeting to answer questions. He did his best to address as many as possible, and offered to discuss issues with residents when required. He said that he will be available on Fridays at 9am outside Homerton College, and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. This is all good, but the council and their contractor seems to be addressing individual issues and complaints as they arise, instead of being responsible to every user of the road in the first place. I think that residents have good reason to be dubious that the project will be completed even to the extended timescale, and (more worryingly) that everything will be finished to the standards promised. The cycleway itself looks fine, but what about the pavements, the new verges, the repairs to the side roads and any other elements of the scheme which have been promised? Will they all happen, or could they also be dismissed with a shrug, like the non-appearance of the safer, advertising-free bus stops? We must wait and see, but also be vigilant.