“You’re really going to ride that to Neston?” he asked, nodding towards my bike. “You know it’s a really long way?”
“Of course I am,” I replied with all the nonchalance I could summon up while fixing a puncture. “I can easily ride 100 miles in a day.”
|Chester Cathedral: heart of a city I know well - but not well|
enough to navigate by bicycle, it seems.
|The Winsford, in Bunbury: starting point for the great 30-mile|
Odyssey to Neston
As with many cycle schemes worldwide, however, the primary purpose of the routes through Chester barely seems to be to serve the needs of real, practical cycling. Instead, at points I felt as though I were cycling through some developer’s brochure for the new housing by the banks of the Shropshire Union canal. I imagined how some planning official had sighed with relief when the cycle paths were added to the development plans. The city had ticked the “green and sustainable” box in their programmes. I didn’t sense much confidence that anyone genuinely expected many people to cycle. Until something fundamental changes in how routes are constructed, the circle of poor design that leads to low use that leads to further poor design will remain unbroken.
The hold-ups in Chester were a particular pity because some of the early part of the journey was positively uplifting. I was in Bunbury at the end of a week’s holiday cruising the scenic Llangollen Canal. We were heading to the Wirral to see my parents-in-law. After I’d fixed the puncture, I found myself slipping along mostly quiet country lanes, rolling past the entrance to Beeston Castle and negotiating sudden, sharp climbs on bridges over the canal or neighbouring railway line. The experience was a fine advert for the not-always-enjoyable experience of cycling on roads in the British countryside.
|St Boniface's Church, Bunbury: typical of the|
picturesque countryside on my trip
Something else had also changed. By this time, I was negotiating a towpath through a distinctly unglamorous area on the east side of Chester. The canal was surrounded by the blank walls of neighbouring buildings. I became distinctly conscious of having relatively little space between the blank, overlooking walls and the canal’s forbidding-looking water. Had it been dark or had I been a woman, I’d have felt distinctly uncomfortable. I started to remember Jane Jacobs’ strictures in The Life and Death of Great American Cities about the importance of having eyes on the street, precisely because there were no such eyes on this towpath. I started to feel an urgent need to get away from the canal.
That, however, wouldn’t prove easy. Although the new, waterfront developments in central Chester make the towpath there feel far less threatening, it remained nearly impossible to work out which way I had to go. Routes off the towpath that I tried took me towards a meandering, riverside cycle path that would substantially lengthen my journey, onto a busy, car-clogged road engineered to steer traffic away from anywhere useful in Chester’s ancient centre, and onto residential streets labelled as a “home zone” full of traffic calming but with no signposts for cyclists pointing anywhere other than the railway station. An information point for cyclists directed me towards a “black route” and a “brown route”, information that was of no value to someone who did not know the colour of the route towards Neston. Finally, in frustration, I struck out, on busy roads, in the general direction of the cycle path heading where I needed, which runs along an abandoned railway. Having found a bridge that passed under the route, I cycled parallel to it until I found a way on.
|Wayfinding on the Chester Greenway: fine for those who've|
already managed to find the route
|Speed bumps on the Chester to Connah's Quay|
cycle path: further evidence that the builders
of this excellent, high-speed long-distance
cycling route didn't realise that that was
what they were building.
The problem, it occurred to me as I rode on to Neston, was that the routes through Chester had not taken cyclists’ needs as their starting point but those of planners charged with finding a use for a troublesome old railway line or for finding a better use for the canal towpath. The attempt to signpost such a route for short-distance journeys seemed to me to misunderstand the way that most people’s short journeys actually work. If going shopping or on some other errand by bike, I will generally need to go to several places, rather than making the kind of clean trip from point A to point B that might be facilitated by a path that takes me entirely off the street network. While I don’t want to ride on a terrifying stretch of high-speed urban road, it’s not, either, a particularly pleasant experience to ride through one of England’s most picturesque, historic cities staring at the featureless grass bank of an old railway cutting.
|The Shropshire Union towpath, from the|
Greenway: a convenient link - if only
I'd known about it.