Photo of rally in Aberdeen

COP 26 rally, Aberdeen

On Saturday 23 October a few ACF members gathered at the pre-COP26 rally in Aberdeen, where ACF Chair Gavin was amongst the speakers.  His message on active travel and the lack of proper infrastructure in Aberdeen was heartfelt and is the same sort of thing ACF has been saying for most of its 18 year history.  You can read what Gavin had to say below.  It seemed to go down well with the hardy audience who braved a chilly couple of hours on Broad St. 

But we never forget that we are often preaching to the converted:  although an MP and MSP were included in the list of speakers, with their own climate change messages, any elected members from Aberdeen City Council were notable by their absence – either among the speakers or even in the crowd (apologies if any were there that I didn’t spot).  

Most of the things that could be done quickly and relatively easily to improve active travel in Aberdeen are within the powers of the City Council.  Are Councillors even listening?  From where we are, it doesn’t feel like it.

ACF presentation at COP-26 rally, Broad St Aberdeen, 23 October 2021

Providing a means of low carbon mass transport is one of the big challenges facing us: private cars contribute about 15% of our emissions – that’s more than domestic heating and way more than aviation. Cars have their uses and many of us enjoy the convenience they offer. Yet cars are hopelessly inefficient in congested cities, and make no sense for many short journeys.

Unfortunately over the last 100 years we – as a nation – have been obsessed with cars. As a result we have a road system and even our city centre designed around the motor car with pedestrians and cyclists in second or third place.

What if someone invented a form of transport that was cheap, low impact, zero-emission, and helped to keep us fit at the same time? Well, they did, they invented it 200 years ago, and it’s called a bicycle…

The humble bicycle is a machine that can fight climate change …

But having to share the road with motorised traffic can make Aberdeen a pretty unpleasant place to ride a bike, and as a result cycling as an everyday form of transport has become a minority choice.

It doesn’t have to be like that. In continental Europe and increasingly in many British cities too, cycling is becoming a part of mainstream everyday transport. In Copenhagen roughly 50% of people get around by bike everyday. In Aberdeen, it’s one or 2%.

It isn’t rocket science, but it does need investment in a network of safe, segregated cycle paths where anyone and everyone can travel around safely. But we haven’t even got to the question of how to pay for it, because it seems in Aberdeen we don’t have politicians with enough imagination to even conceive what a city centre with a network of safe active travel routes would even look like. We had a segregated cycle path installed along the beach esplanade last year and it lasted barely two months before Councillors decided to rip it out again. A decision not informed by facts; no consultation, no statistics.

We had a small network of cycle paths proposed in the City Centre Masterplan which Councillors unanimously voted for in 2015. Six years later how much of that has been built? Unless you count this street we’re standing on, the answer is pretty much none of it.

Arguably the real reason we don’t have proper segregated cycle paths isn’t the lack of funding, it’s because our cities are tight for space so something’s got to give: what needs to be done is to reallocate road space away from cars, and that where it gets difficult because – guess what – nobody with a car wants to give up the convenience they currently have, and they’ll get really upset if you try to take away their on-street parking to make space for a proper bike lane.

It can be done with the political will. Glasgow has just announced a plan to build a network of 270km of cycle paths by the end of the decade. Imagine – almost all of that city reachable by bike within 30 minutes, no school more than 400m from a proper segregated bike path, and no house more than 800m. Edinburgh will build 85km within the next 5 years.

Aberdeen is of course a much smaller city – we don’t need anything like 270km – but we are starting from a low base. How many proper segregated bike paths do we have at the moment, well none really. And yet Aberdeen City Council is instead still working on plans to build new dual carriageway capacity to bring yet more traffic into the city. It’s hard to comprehend, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the climate emergency. Of course we get the usual excuses and wishful thinking: everything will be fine once all our cars are electric. Well, no it won’t. Just like we were told all Aberdeen’s transport problems were going to be solved by the AWPR. How did that go? If you build more roads, you get more cars. It’s called induced demand. Of course the same applies to cycling: if you build proper bike lanes, many more people will use them.

Our transport system would be so much better if people were given the realistic choice of cycling. Imagine how much better our city centre would be if we could emulate Copenhagen and take half of motorised traffic off the streets. And not just better for cyclists – better for everyone: less noise, less time-wasting congestion, less air pollution, better health for us and our children. Higher levels of walking and cycling could save the NHS £17 billion over 20 years.

Our Council’s best effort so far on encouraging cycling is to bring us a universal bike hire scheme, maybe sometime next year. What they don’t seem to recognise is that the single biggest reason more people don’t ride a bike isn’t lack of access to a bike, it’s because they don’t feel safe on the roads. By all means give us a fancy London-style bike hire scheme, but first please give us places to ride them safely.

Aberdeen Cycle Forum has been campaigning for better cycle facilities for almost 20 years, and you’d have to say we have so far failed to bring about meaningful change. The levers of power still lie with our elected representatives, and it feels like they aren’t listening. We need them to wake up to climate change, wake up to air pollution and wake up to the fact that there are alternatives to a car-dominated transport system.

Gavin Clark
Chair, Aberdeen Cycle Forum