Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Footpaths in East Kilbride

It looks like East Kilbride's local councillors are making a move to tackle the terrible state of footpaths in the town, and in the midst of encroaching council funding cuts it's all the more important to make it easier now to get people out walking.

I haven't been able to view the minutes of the EK Area Committee meeting yet, but I'm working off of the Daily Record's brief coverage here.  The major crux of the problem seems to be the council, as always, giving vastly more resources to roads than to our crumbling footpaths.  The SNP's Collette Stevenson, Labour's Gerry Convery and Independent Jim Wardhaugh all raised this at the most recent meeting of the East Kilbride Area Committee.  Roads and Transportation Services manager Martin Muir has confirmed that by 2019 the council aims to have remedied 1823km of roadways, but only 225km of footpaths.

Whilst I recognise that our roads are in no great condition either, a great deal of the problem there arises from increased wear and tear caused by ever-increasing traffic, and as I've mentioned recently in other posts, the only way we're ever going to tackle traffic in the town is by modal change, and active transport is an important part of that.

First of all, the Council have definitely made some good improvements lately.  I noted, for example, on Twitter before Christmas that out of twelve lights in the underpasses through the Murray Roundabout, only a single one was actually working.  These all seem to have been repaired or replaced now, and thankfully this major pedestrian entrance to the Town Centre is now properly illuminated at night.  There are definitely still huge areas in desperate need of improvement, however.

East Kilbride, as part of its New Town design, has a large number of footpaths and "greenways" segregated from the road network, that were designed to facilitate people to walk around in relative safety and comfort by keeping them away from traffic, however a lot of these seem to have become severely neglected, I suppose perhaps because their distance from roads means they're never in sight of our council's road-focused agenda?  For instance, I was walking along one such path in West Mains just the other day - the one that follows the Kittoch Water from Strathfillan Road, under the railway line, and into Tantallon Park - and nearly tripped over a gap in paving stones, which have moved significantly apart in what must clearly be years since any kind of maintenance work upon them.  There was also significant flooding along parts of the same path, where drains have become blocked up with autumn leaves, and never cleared out.

I hate to rely upon anecdotal evidence, but I think this is fairly typical of a lot of pathways within the town now.  I used to regularly cycle along this path as a child when travelling from my Gran's in East Mains back to home, at that point in Mossneuk, and never had any problems back then.  There is no way you would want to cycle along the same path now, you'd likely get trapped and thrown off in a gap between paving slabs, or end up soaked passing through flooding.

But, naturally, the council faces budget cuts, and in particular a major roads repair programme is drawing to a close, so that department faces a significant loss of resources.  So why should the Council be focusing on footpaths?

Well, first of all, footpaths are generally more resilient than roadways, and need repaired less often.  Of course, this is also much the same argument that is used to deny a budget to improve the footpaths, which has been used so long as to lead to the terrible condition we see today. But if our footpaths were set right with a cash injection now, we would be creating improvements that would last a lot longer than the same money put into roads would last.

And, naturally, safer footpaths are going to attract more use.  The major off-traffic paths through the town, like the Headhouse Greenway that connects the Plaza entrance at Telford Road through to Livingstone Drive, are a major asset to the town, perhaps one of the most far-sighted contributions made by the New Town planners.  They provide the potential to get people safely and easily from local neighbourhoods into the town centre by foot or bicycle, potentially leading to a considerable reduction in traffic.  It's just rather sad how little used they seem to be nowadays.  Indeed, it's quite often the case that I walk the full length of the Headhouse Greenway without passing a single person walking in the other direction, and yet this is potentially a corridor connecting hundreds of households in The Murray and Westwood to the town centre.

Not only would we reduce traffic, but encouraging active travel throws in all other kinds of benefits too.  Naturally, getting people walking and cycling outdoors is a good boost to their health - not only physically, but mentally as well.  Our modern sedentary, indoor lifestyles are a major contribution to high rates of obesity and depression.  People could save themselves a lot of money as well, compared to paying fuel costs or bus fares.

In an ideal world, the Council would take active travel far more seriously, and be encouraging people out of cars and onto bikes or their own feet.  It would be nice to see a solid strategy set out for this, and budgets set aside for things like promotional material and on-street signage for footpaths and cycle paths.  I definitely recall the Council having done such things in the past, particularly a push on the town's three designated cycle routes that were established, I think, some time in the late 90s or early 00s.

My concern is that with budgets falling, we have to make a case for fixing footpaths now while there is potentially money to do so, because it's less clear where such money might come from in the future.

There seems to be ample money to get roads fixed, so why can the Council not make it a priority to fix up footpaths just this once?

Like I say, there is potential for the Council to save money in the long run if they encourage people out of their cars, reducing traffic and thus wear and tear on the roads.  And there are numerous other benefits to be gained by the people switching as well.  East Kilbride was built to include major off-road footpaths to get people around, so why don't we take advantage of this green legacy?

Monday, 8 January 2018

Recommended Reading: Bread For All

Chris Renwick's Bread For All sets out to give an account of the history of the British Welfare State, from pre-industrial Poor Laws, up until the foundation of the NHS in 1948.  Renwick not only gives us fascinating details about the evolution of our welfare system, but also of the people involved in making it, and those who depend upon it.

I've read a number of similar social histories in the past, especially about the post-war Labour government that launched a lot of what we consider the Welfare State today, but what I found really fascinating in Renwick's work is that he really highlights how the Welfare State was a piecemeal development, built up by many different politicians, campaigners and parties over a period of centuries.  Labour's post-1945 reforms in this context can be seen more as a centralisation and universalisation of services that existed in various, and generally less generous, forms throughout the industrial era.

Renwick's context to all this is the state of crisis that the Welfare State finds itself in today, under the unrelenting cuts of austerity.  Bread For All also makes clear how vital the Welfare State has been in mitigating the worst effects on the poor of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, and essentially asks us why we do not do more to protect it today - after all we are at risk of losing hundreds of years of progress, that are far more easily lost than they will ever be regained.

If you would like to know more about our welfare system, its development, and why we should fight to protect it today, you'll benefit from this book.

Request it today at your local library, or you can order your own copy from Amazon here.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Why Are Glaswegians Not Using Buses Anymore?

I think few people would disagree that Greater Glasgow has too much traffic.  Huge sums of money have been spent on major road projects in recent years, such as the M74 completion, and the M8/M73/M74 junction upgrade, which have made some improvements in getting traffic in and out of the city, but the city itself still seems to be choked with traffic almost all hours of the day.  Even East Kilbride has seen traffic increase, and again most plans to cope with this seem to focus on road expansion - notably plans to turn Stewartfield Way into a dual carriageway.

It's likely not surprising to you that I don't view road-building as a long-term solution.  For decades now, governments have promoted new roads as the solution to traffic problems, and in every case it has inevitably led to some short-term improvements, quickly lost as traffic increases further until the new roads are as clogged up as the old ones.  Any real plan to tackle traffic has to address modal change - getting people out of cars and into more sustainable modes of transport.  But this highlights a real quandary - Glasgow is, even more than other areas, seeing massive declines in the usage of its bus services.

Transport Scotland's statistics show that the number of bus journeys taken in the "South West and Strathclyde" region peaked at 234 million in the financial year 2008/09.  By 2015/16, this figure had fallen to 169m, an overall decline of 28%.  By contrast over the same period, the South East region covering Edinburgh's sphere of influence only fell from 170m to 165m, a 3% decline.  The North East, Tayside and Central region fell from 66m to 61m, an 8% decline, and the Highlands and Islands region held steady on 14m.  England's cities follow a similar trend to the rest of Scotland of gradual decline (with the notable exception of London where bus usage continues to expand rapidly, now accounting for over half of all England's bus usage), but Glasgow really sticks out as the city with the sharpest decline.

Rail is coping slightly better - Strathclyde Partnership for Transport's statistics show that rail journeys across the Greater Glasgow area are generally increasing at an average rate of around 2% per year, but those figures still leave a significant overall fall in public transport usage.  Looking at East Kilbride specifically, the ORR statistics show that in the 2008/09 to 2015/16 period, the number of journeys starting and ending at East Kilbride railway station increased from 1.07m to 1.14m (~1% increase per year), while journeys to and from Hairmyres increased from 0.53m to 0.72m (~5% increase per year).

So, in a situation where ideally we should be moving people from cars to public transport, it seems that the overall trend actually seems to be going in the other direction.  And while the increase in rail usage is positive, it does not make up for the loss of bus patrons, and also potentially generates problems down the line if Glasgow's rail network starts to push the capacities of its current infrastructure.  So, Glasgow needs to convert car users to bus users - how can this be accomplished?

The bus operators themselves obviously seem to have some ideas in terms of recent innovations.  Live bus times are finally operational in Glasgow, over a decade after they came into use in Edinburgh, so at least the operators seem to have realised how important it is to passengers to know exactly when their bus will arrive.  The new Glasgow Tripper ticket is an attempt to tackle the lack of integrated ticketing in Glasgow, though it's still in early stages and only offers day tickets at present.  There's also been a notable push in upgrading bus shelters, and in the provision of additional features such as free onboard wi-fi.

But do the operators' actions match with what people actually want out of public transport services? Earlier today, I asked friends and contacts from around Glasgow that, if they weren't using buses, what factors were accounting for that decision.  The answers came in three main categories:

1. Fares
Naturally, cost is a prohibitive factor.  My respondents recognised that bus probably was the cheapest way to travel but as one person put it, the difference was insufficient to "compensate for the inconvenience" compared to the ability to just jump in a car.  Many people complained about the price of single fares, though none of the non-bus-users mentioned considering the much reduced long-term cost of using a season ticket.  Additionally, there were complaints about the lack of information about fares - someone not wanting to take a bus when they were not able to see in advance how much it would cost, and someone else who had previously had trouble with incorrect fare advice from drivers.  One person said they were put off by the need for exact change, but noted the recent improvements in terms of contactless payments.

2. Comfort and Safety
Many respondents noted that in their past experiences, buses were just too unclean.  In fact, uncleanliness came across as the mostly commonly held and most passionately expressed complaint.  Some also expressed concerns about the cleanliness of other passengers on the bus, and there were worries about the transmission of colds and the like.  A number of respondents, all female, also complained that there were occasions where they had felt unsafe on a bus due to the behaviour of other passengers on board, especially if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  A respondent with a disability was worried about being bullied by other passengers while travelling.

3. Availability
A lot of respondents were just making journeys that they felt did not have a viable public transport option.  Either the bus route was going to take too much longer compared to a journey by car, involved too many changes, or would involve too much walking at one or both ends of the journey. 

So, what are the options available to tackle such problems?

If we take London as our role model to follow, since it is by far the most successful part of the UK in growing bus usage, the key would seem to be to take a lot of the administration of services into public control.  Indeed, the relatively small decline in bus usage seen in Edinburgh could also be taken as evidence to the advantage of that, since Lothian Buses is a publicly-owned bus operator.  The TfL model uses private operators, but sees fares, routes, frequencies and vehicle specifications set by TfL planners, who then put out contracts to tender to privately-owned operators.  The advantages of this are obvious - public control of fares prevents prices from becoming excessive, public control of routes ensures that all areas are served at the frequency required, instead of the current situation where the most profitable routes see frequent services while less profitable areas are cut back to minimal subsidised services, and strict bus specifications ensure standards for bus capacity, age and cleanliness.

Imagine if we could have SPT or a new dedicated body analyse transport patterns across Glasgow and then lay down a network plan based upon where people need to go, rather than where it is most profitable to operate.  And furthermore, a fully integrated and regulated fares system so that public transport is acceptably and clearly priced, ideally with a modern Oyster card-style system that avoids all need to worry about finding spare change or choosing between different ticket types.

London is taking measures to improve safety too - increasing usage of CCTV, ensuring drivers are well trained and supported in dealing with problem passengers, placing wardens at central bus stops after dark, and so forth.  Glasgow should look at adopting similar procedures to ensure passenger safety.  Just ensuring that safety concerns get reported and then appropriately handled by the police would be a great deterrent in preventing anti-social activity in the first place.

So, it is clear that bus usage is declining sharply in Glasgow, that this is negatively impacting attempts to reduce traffic, and so that we need to find ways to increase its appeal. 

Attempts to increase its appeal will need to focus on ensuring fairer fares, giving people a clean and safe journey experience, and ensuring that public transport networks are set up to meet passenger flows rather than profit margins.

The success of TfL's planning structure in London suggests that a similar structure would work here too, and therefore we should look at bringing control of bus operation into public hands, either directly as is the case with Lothian Buses, or through tendering of regulated services as is the case with TfL.

What is your experience with bus services in Glasgow?  If you use buses, how would you encourage others to do the same?  If you do not uses buses at present, what would convince you to do so?  Please leave comments below!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Tim Hortons in East Kilbride

I've been rather irrationally excited by Tim Hortons since I returned to Scotland, and have been into their City Centre store several times when passing.  I'm quite excited to see that they've now opened a store in East Kilbride, and basically just a stone's throw from where I live, even.

On the one hand, they are essentially just another big coffee chain, on a similar par to Costa, Starbucks and the like.  But in a cafe culture dominated by big chains (East Kilbride does need more independent cafes), it's still exciting to get offered something just a little bit different.  Tim Hortons has its roots in Canada, where it is as ubiquitous as Starbucks would be in the USA, but otherwise they offer a fairly similar product range, although with more of an emphasis on doughnuts as well.

I have to say, mostly I keep going back for these:

Timbits are little mini doughnuts that come in a variety of flavours (the 'birthday cake' variety is my favourite) and you can either buy them individually or in little selection boxes that give you a mixture of all of them.  This is a terrible thing for my weight loss ambitions for this year...

Opening times and other info is all available here.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Happy 2018!

Hello friends!  I hope you've all had a fun festive season, but now that's all behind us and it's time to start looking to the new year ahead.

2017 was a fairly momentous year for myself - in January I was living in Smethwick and working for Walsall libraries, and by December I was living back in East Kilbride, working for both a public library service and now also a university library too.  I bought my first home, and have settled in very well.  We had two election campaigns in the early summer, which occupied quite a lot of my first few months back in Scotland.  It was generally a very fun and exciting year, but there's a few things I'm now really setting as a focus for this new year.

I expect most of my readers here know that I've been running election results sites for some time now, although they've been falling further and further behind lately.  Well, thanks to some new scripting skills I've picked up, I've managed to automate quite a lot of the content generation process, and I can now get a page of results processed in about a fifth of the time it used to take, so expect all those sites to finally get caught up to date.  Just between Christmas and the New Year, I've almost completed all of the 2017 English county council election results - now up here.

In web content terms, I'm also still hoping to do more stuff this year on various fronts, if I can make myself actually sit down and write things.  Very often I think to myself I will write a post on a subject, only to find someone else has already written about it, or I don't quite know how to put down what I want to say, and the result is I'm hardly ever blogging these days, but I'm going to make myself change that!  Expect more especially on the birdwatching and baking fronts, these are taking up more and more of my time recently.

Okay, I didn't really score the lines deeply enough, but you can just about make out "2018" on this granary bloomer I baked earlier today...

Once we get out of winter, I plan to really get a tour of Scotland going in earnest.  I've barely been anywhere since I came back, having had a lot of last summer taken up with elections and house moves.  This year I aim to get out to all the major Scottish cities again, and to lots of places I haven't seen in years, or ever at all.

In the flat, I continue to spend most of my time scripting.  I really want to try and get a little mobile app developed some time this year.  Probably just a little straightforward game thing, but it's more a proof of concept for myself because I'm sure I can do it, it's just one of those things I've been putting off for years, but really need to sit down and do.  Copy that for all manner of other things, coming to think of it, I had planned to do NaNoWriMo last November for instance, and it just never got going.  I'm also eager to carry on with learning a foreign language and losing weight - both things I made good progress in during the autumn, but both lapsed in the lead up to the festive period.

I expect I'll also try and get another trip down to Birmingham in at some point during the year.  I'm also eager to get some travelling abroad done, time and money permitting as always...

Ah well, we'll see in twelve months time how much of this I actually manage to get done!