Monday, 30 July 2012

Colchester: A cycle-path's perspective

A few months ago I bought a bike from Colchester’s fantastic Cycle King. I made the decision, initially, to get me from A (my house) to B (the train station) with more haste than normal. In that sense it’s worked out perfectly. I’m shaving 20 minutes off my daily commute and am now incorporating a regular flow of  exercise into my life.

More interestingly, it’s allowed me to see another side to Colchester. Having no driver’s license [a decision fuelled more because of a preference for spending lesson money on booze rather than any environmental idealism in my younger days] meant my sightseeing was limited to the stretching of two legs or my other half’s compliance in exploring beyond the confines of North Hill in the car.

So far I’ve free-wheeled my way around the country paths of Cymbeline Meadows and, a very muddy, Highwoods Country Park. I’ve also zipped my way around town, weaving in and out of traffic while I make my way to the various veg stalls peppered across Colchester during the weekend.

What’s struck me since my setting out on my cycling adventures is just how impressive Colchester’s biking infrastructure is. Too many councils in the UK pay lip-service to cyclists, creating pointless cycle paths that are poorly thought out in terms of congestion and the direction of cycling traffic.

Since 2008,  Colchester Borough Council (CBC) have spent an extraordinary £4.2m on increasing the number of cycle journeys in the town by 75%. My impression is that it shows. Perhaps not in the people actively cycling in town – the ratio of bikes to cars is significant, particularly around North Station – but the number of cycle routes available is certainly above the national average (if there is such a thing) and a thousand percent beyond the options available in my home town of Edinburgh.

An article in the local newspaper the Gazette last year suggested that the funding has been wasted [I have to say the article was loaded with negative rhetoric]. But Colchester, from my initial impressions, is a transient town that has relied on gas-guzzling cars to get around for far too long. Changing mindsets is not a short-term solution and, hopefully, CBC is aware of this.

Cycling in Colchester needs to be seen by Joe Public as a viable alternative to using the car. From my perspective, as a professional communicator, CBC must actively steer the promotion of getting in the saddle from cost or health-based messages (two particularly patronising and unspecific hits). It has to set a more emotional tone, highlighting the importance of building a long-term framework for the future of the town and the people who live in it.

Steering Colchester away from the perception that it’s nothing more than a commuter’s town obscured under the shadow of London should be a primary objective of CBC. That is, of course, not easy, nor can it be done through cycling alone. But by creating a community of people who prefer to explore the town on two-wheels, rather than escape from it on four, CBC will be well on its way to creating a Colchester that’s not just cycle-friendly, but cycle-centric. A town you’d want to live in.

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