Councillors in Bristol were warned that controversial plans to scrap a key cycle lane in the city – which the council claimed would help alleviate the risk of flooding on the road – would prove hugely unpopular and a potential “real PR risk”, but decided to press ahead with the scheme anyway.
Whiteladies Road, a key approach to Bristol city centre from the north west with a much-used cycle lane, regularly floods when there is rain due to water running downhill from adjacent roads that have blocked drains. Water levels of up to 18 inches caused by the blocked drains have made conditions hazardous for cyclists and motorists, as well as pedestrians.
In May 2022, we reported that Bristol City Council was consulting on whether to tackle the risk of flash floods by installing grass verges to soak up rainwater, as well as a drainage channel, through widening the footway on either side of the road.
This plan, however, was widely criticised by local cyclists and environmental and active travel campaigners, who pointed out that the scheme meant that there would no longer be space for the cycle lanes running in each direction.
Councillor Don Alexander, who holds the transport portfolio at the Labour-controlled council, said at the time that removing the cycle lanes was “a last resort… but the lack of space in this area means we need to consider it.”
Vassili Papastavrou, secretary of the Bristol Tree Forum who raised concerns over the potential scrapping of the cycle lane on Whiteladies Road in a lengthy thread on Twitter, told road.cc that he had “never heard of a cycle lane causing flooding before,” and suggested that “it might be a world first.”
The scheme sparked widespread condemnation from cycling campaigners and other councillors – including the Green Party’s Emma Edwards, who first raised the issues with drainage at the end of 2021 – and a public consultation involving over 1,000 residents found that 94 percent were opposed to the cycle lane’s removal.
Following that overwhelming response opposing the scheme, the council decided to drop the plans in October.
Now, documents unearthed by a Freedom of Information request from Mr Papastravrou show that the council was warned of the potential for such a backlash by internal advisors, but pushed ahead with the scheme anyway.
According to the documents, while members of the local authority’s various departments noted that the plans were “really not ideal” as the route is “busy and with vocal users”, Labour councillor Alexander said that he was “happy to remove the cycle lane” and that he would try to “warm up” his cycling team to the idea.
Quite an interesting FoI here on how Bristol council chiefs were warned of a "real PR risk" if pushing ahead with plans to remove a cycle lane on Whiteladies Road
— Alex Seabrook (@AlexGSeabrook) January 4, 2023
As part of the council’s quality assurance process, which took place in 2021, months before the plan to scrap the bike lanes was announced, a traffic signal officer said: “Our preference would be to retain as much cycle provision as possible, only because we have just installed the first early-release traffic signals for cyclists in the city at the next junction down, at Triangle West, so it may look potentially contradictory if in the next breath we take cycling provision away here.”
“I think the public pressure to install more cycle routes will increase, and removing it — especially here, which is busy and with vocal users — will be a real PR risk to the authority,” a cycling officer added. “We have just consulted on the A37/A4018 project, where we stated we are improving pedestrian, cycle and bus routes.
“In a location like this, I don’t think we should be taking 2 to 3.8 metres out of use, as we need all the space we can get allocated to pedestrians and cycles, as this is one of the main corridors into the city from the north. I appreciate the issues here, but I think removing the cycle route and still only providing two metres for pedestrians is really not ideal.”
A transport minister also noted the importance of maintaining a key part of Bristol’s cycling network, saying: “It’s a vital bit of road for prioritising cycle infrastructure in the long term… Any scheme here, where we are replacing the road surface for the long term, should have integrated protected cycling provision as far as possible, or we are really missing an opportunity. These are the missing links we need to be filling in where possible to work towards a cohesive network.”
However, later that year another council officer noted that the lack of protection for cyclists on Whiteladies Road may afford the council the opportunity to remove the bike lane without too much fuss from cycling campaigners.
“The Bristol Cycle Campaign doesn’t like this type of cycle lane, so it may not be as much of a PR risk as thought… their call is for proper segregated routes,” the advisor said.
Alexander then replied that he “would have a chat with the cycling team at his meeting this afternoon, to warm them up”.
Responding to a question on social media concerning why the local authority chose to ignore the advice of several of its members – before eventually scrapping the controversial scheme a year later – the Labour councillor tweeted: “We spoke more with people and revised our plans accordingly. We do a lot of that.”
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.