Communications Channel

February 18, 2021

Yesterday’s essential excuse for a bike ride involved dropping off some plants* with a friend who had admired them back in the giddy days of summer. I’d promised to give her some when I divided up the clump and a two day intermission in the Weather Gods’ February hostilities gave me enough time to both do so and arrange to cycle them down to her.

Bike parked by river.

This meant not just cycling somewhere new – oh frabjuous day – but also a trip through the heart of Bigtown, which is (as it has been the last few times I’ve been down) absolutely hopping. The shops might almost all be shut, but a family of otters have been making their presence felt in the river and in the absence of any other thing to do, le tout Bigtown appears to be spending the days of lockdown looking out for them. This gladdens my heart (even though I’ve not managed to spot them myself) but makes navigating the shared-use river path somewhat slow going.

Fortunately I had left myself plenty of time because as well as having to weave my way politely through the otter spotters, I also ended up having three separate conversations – one with the chap who was busy surveying the toucan crossing we’ve been campaigning for the last five years over, one to admire the nifty e-bike and trailer setup of a mum visiting the playground, and finally a catch up with a friend who is locked into a gaslighting battle with the coonsil and now the polis over the fact that if 3,000 drivers speed down her road in a week, and she puts up some scarecrows to remind them that people live there and they might want to slow down, it turns out it’s she who gets in trouble with the law (she is made of sterner stuff than me and appears to be making progress on this one, amazingly). Combine that with a good socially distanced outdoor natter with my pal (exercising your jaw muscles is still exercise, right?) and then another good long chat about local issues with another acquaintance, and that was five face-to-face conversations in one day, possibly doubling my total for the year (not counting the other half). It’s no wonder I was knackered by the time I got home, and not just because it’s been a while since I cycled 30 miles in a day.

We’ve recently started using Slack with the Bigtown Cycle Campaign, mainly in a vain attempt to cut down on the numer of 8-page emails I get from certain people with impeccable attention to detail but no inner editor whatsoever. I have used it in various campaigns and found it useful for communicating the sort of day-to-day matters and discussion that need raising but don’t necessarily warrant a full email. But good as it is, it still doesn’t replace the main communication channel for cycle campaigning round here – bumping into someone when you’re both out on your bikes.

And as a means of communication I can confirm that it knocks the painful Zoom meeting into a cocked hat.

* Some nice dark red Astrantia which were given me when we moved in, so I felt it was appropriate to pay it forward.

Schroedinger’s Traffic Light

October 7, 2020

There are many reasons for extending a bike ride, from getting in some extra exercise or hitting some weird numerical challenge you’ve set yourself, to going to see something particularly interesting. And then, in my case, there’s adding an extra half hour onto your daily trip to the paper in order to see if a traffic light is working or not.

I’ve mentioned before that some interactions I’ve had with the coonsil have gone beyond the normal frustrations you might expect from a large and bureacratic organisation and have started to feel more like gaslighting. Certainly yesterday they actually had me doubting my own grasp on reality after a toucan crossing which has never worked well at the best of times (we talk in cycle campaigning about ‘Danny MacAskill infrastructure’ when a path appears to have been designed to prevent cycling rather than enable it – this one gives you a green man for exactly 3 seconds so is more of a Usain Bolt crossing) stopped working altogether* just as we were about to resume our group rides. After the usual measures (official report, follow up email) had failed to produce a result, I reverted to frustrated tweeting and retweeting which finally produced an email telling me it was fixed after a mere two weeks. Yay! Or rather Nay! for Twitter reported it wasn’t working. I followed up. Council employee reported he had gone down and personally seen it working. Twitter repeated that it wasn’t. There was nothing for it but to go and look myself at this traffic light which is either dead or not, depending on whether the observer was a council employee or not.

Fortunately it was a nice afternoon so it was no real hardship to cycle down, observe that the crossing had been partially fixed (in that it now at least included a green man stage) but that one set of lights was still completely dead. Off I cycled back home to email a photo of the dead traffic light only to be told that it was working, it was just that, after the green man had come on, it then went blank briefly until the red light came on. Clearly I’d managed to take a photo of it during that exact few seconds, without noticing either the green man (fair enough you could blink and miss him) OR the red man that comes on for the other minute or so of the cycle.

This was stated with such confidence that for a moment they even had me believing it, even though I’d stood there, looked at the light, took two photographs, and then crossed at the light again without seeing a flicker of life. Fortunately, just as I was beginning to question my own sanity, my spies reported that a traffic engineer had started work on the light which rather implied that perhaps, just maybe, the damn thing was broken after all.

Traffic light not working

Apparently – and we’re taking nothing for granted here one way or the other – it is now working again, although I’m not counting on it until I actually see it for myself. I’ll keep you updated with events as they develop; just think of it as a more high-tech equivalent of the height of the ford.

* for pedestrians and cyclists. It was working just dandy for the cars, obviously, or they’d have fixed it.

The Rain Falls on the Just and on the Unjust Fella*

February 3, 2020

I don’t know about you, but 2020 for me so far seems to have consisted of me pulling on my rain gear (I’m getting extremely good value out of my Aldi bargain waterproof trousers which have so far proved, remarkably, Waterproof in Scotland), wishing I’d thought to take my soggy wet gloves out of my bag to dry when I came back from the last outing, unstuffing the newspaper from my still-damp boots and heading back out into the rain for yet another Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign event that seemed like a good idea back when we planned it before the monsoon started. In just the last week we’ve had a Sunday ride (starting in the pouring rain), a Burns Night ride with the accessible cycling group (heavy rain forecast but in the end only raining lightly for most of it) and some path clearing work (solid mizzle all the way down but almost dry on the way back). Amazingly, we’ve had reasonable turnouts for all of these and none of the members have strangled me and left my body in a flooded ditch which, frankly, they would be well within their rights to do given how many times I’ve dragged them out of their warm dry homes on soggy days in recent weeks.

Today, however, the Weather Gods have given it a rest and even though I had yet another event organised, was forecast to be merely showery. I set off on the Brompton with a song in my heart, buoyed by the fact that the forecast for tomorrow (with yet another event organised – really, it’s as if I had forgotten what February is like) was even better. And got to the top of the road before I realised that when the Weather Gods take a rest, it’s only to let the Puncture Fairy have her head. For yes, the Brompton had a slow puncture in its back wheel and I had no time to fix it (even if I actually could have done which I doubt, given it’s a hub gear and a Marathon plus tyre). I couldn’t swap bikes because I was en route to Edinburgh afterwards (where the Brompton was due for a post-operative check up) and I couldn’t be late because I was meeting a bunch of council officers for a tour of the highlights of Bigtown’s cycling infrastructure. Nothing to it but to try and cycle faster than my back tyre was deflating, and then lose all credibility by arriving late, out of breath and pleading for a loan of a pump (I did have a pump in my bag but for reasons which made sense at the time, has been monkeyed with to inflate presta valves and I can’t for the life of me get it back to inflating schraders again).

Despite the suboptimal start, however, we did have a successful tour. Mostly I had erred on the informative and instructive side, choosing the route where there were opportunities to make positive suggestions about possible improvements rather than simply pointing and laughing at some of the madder stuff. But I did manage one small measure of revenge. There has been a bit of back and forth about whether it makes sense to designate one of the official bike routes up a one-in-five hill, even if it does mean a quieter road than those with a more forgiving gradient. So I made sure to include it on our route on the way back. Sometimes it’s much more powerful to show** rather than tell.

* But mainly on the just because the unjust stole the just’s umbrella.

** Especially the less-experienced officer who had borrowed one of the council e-bikes and then accidentally turned the power assist off at the bottom of the hill … amazingly he made it up, and in top gear too.

Green Shoots?

January 24, 2020

Well, here’s a turn up for the books. No sooner do I write a blog post about the coonsil’s gaslighting behaviour, when I get an email from one official asking suggestions about where to put some new cycle parking followed by another from another council official offering to set up a tour of some of the worst cycling issues in Bigtown so we can explore ways forward. This is … unexpected, to say the least. Normally, when I get asked for input into the coonsil’s plans, it’s to look at some already finalised drawings so the Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign can put a big old rubberstamp in the box marked ‘we have consulted with stakeholders’. Occasionally some of the things we pointed out in a meeting three years previously might show up in an (already finalised) plan with no acknowledgement that this was something we suggested ages ago and were told was impossible, but that was about as far as I felt our influence might go, and it was getting a little old.

market parking

So it was rather satisfying yesterday to spend a pleasant hour with a council officer examining possible sites for cycle parking (having consulted local cyclists of course), discussing how best to install sheffield stands so you can actually attach a bike to them (half the bike parking in Bigtown appears to have been installed by someone who’s never seen a bike but has read about them in books), and generally come up with a sensible solution given the inevitable constraints about planning, and the coonsil’s unaccountable reluctance to plonk a massive bike rack right in the middle of the (nominally pedestrianised) High Street to stop the constant stream of ‘deliveries’ (this is what you get when you solicit suggestions for bike parking locations online).*

And it was the icing on the cake this morning to get an email from a local cyclist very happy that the last cycle path had finally been cleared of leaves. Apparently it took the wee machine a few goes up and down to get the job done, because the might of a coonsil cleaning machine is as nothing to a woman armed with a shovel, but they got there in the end.

working on the cycle path

So I’m feeling a little positive for once, and I’ll thank you not to burst my bubble for a little while yet, although let’s see how next year’s leaf fall season goes before we pronounce the corner turned. And there’s still plenty of stuff left to protest about, so we’ve got plans brewing for another Pop-Up PoP in Bigtown. This year it won’t involve any cows but if our discussion in the pub last night is anything to go by, it will involve both knitting (or more accurately crochet) and drinking coffee. And I think that’s the kind of protest we can all get behind.

cow on a bike

* It was even more satisfying when she had to go and move her van from one of our proposed locations to another and I (on my bike) not only got there three minutes faster, but also got to watch for a further five minutes while she hunted in vain for a legal parking place. And no, I honestly can’t think why cyclists have a reputation for smugness …

The Wrong Kind of Leaves on the Path

January 10, 2020

This January is shaping up to be a month for slipping out in between weather warnings; today’s adventure involved heading down to Bigtown with a shovel for a cross bar because the coonsil are apparently incapable of getting some leaves off a cycle path.

shovel on a bike

Have shovel, will travel

This has been a long-running saga: two months ago, noting that the leaves were falling off the trees – again! in autumn! just like last year! – I reported several stretches of cycle path that were getting dangerously choked. I did this through the official channel, plus two separate coonsil officers, who both assured me that something would be done. Time passed, more leaves fell, armies of coonsil employees spend hours with leaf blowers tidying other leaves into nice piles in the parks, and nothing was done about the leaves on the cycle paths. I chased again (every time I do this I get an automatic email saying that my email will be responded to within 20 days and then … silence). I emailed my councillors. I emailed our climate champion (‘every council policy will be looked at through a climate emergency lens’). More silence. Christmas came and went and new year and when everyone was back at their desks, I chased again. This time I got a reply telling me that it was difficult because they didn’t have a machine that was capable of cleaning up the resulting leaf mulch. The leaf mulch that would have been nice leaf-blowable leaves had they actually tackled them when they were first reported.

path covered in leaves

At this point, we cracked and just did it ourselves, using that bleeding edge piece of technology, the shovel. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a busy woman at the other end of it (we had one camera shy man) but some level of willingness to get out of your wee machine and put your back into it does seem to help. Four volunteers, two hours, and several slices of gingerbread later, we had cleared one of the paths entirely (just another half dozen trouble spots to go).

working on the cycle path

Riding home, I pondered on the way that every interaction with the coonsil – at least when it comes to any form of transport that isn’t in a car – ultimately leaves me questioning either their sanity or my own.* Especially after the coonsil responded to our tweet about the whole thing by helpfully asking if we wanted any bags of leaves uplifted (I’m still now undecided if this represents extreme cluelessness or extremely clever trolling). I know that when I speak to individual officers and politicians that they often seem to get it and are simply trying their best to get things done in difficult circumstances. But somehow the end result is often still indistinguishable to what an evil genius would come up with if they wanted to discourage cycling without actively banning it.

Even so, while it would be nice if if we didn’t have to do the coonsil’s job for them, we still got the better end of the bargain. We were the ones who had a morning in the fresh air and the winter sunshine getting some healthy exercise in good company – and the satisfaction of a job well done, something I suspect is rare if you work for Bigtownshire Coonsil.

And I got home while it was still dry. With 24 hours of rain forecast, that counts as a win these days.

* It’s not just me – I’d stopped to chat with a friend who is attempting to get some sort of traffic calming on her rat-run road so she can safely take her autistic son to school, and has been told that nothing can be done because not enough people have been knocked down there yet.

We Interrupt this Earth-Moving Tale …

April 10, 2018

… with news of a strange interlude of not just sunshine, but actual warm weather this spring. Not only that but it arrived just as I had an afternoon to kill in Bigtown between coaxing Stephen into riding a bike (still working on it …) and the Bigtown Cycle Campaign meeting.

First stop was the high street for a coffee in the sunshine (outdoors! Without my coat on!) and the traditional Bigtown way of passing the time: waiting to bump into someone you know.

coffee outside

Half a pleasant hour of cycling chit chat later, I headed off on the bike to check out a possible route for our family rides in the summer. It was not a route I knew well, and there has been an issue with a bridge washing out. The Coonsil assured me they were on the case and it seems they are dealing with it in time-honoured fashion, by putting up a couple of barriers and hoping for the best.

hole in bridge

As far as I’m concerned, the main issue with the route isn’t the opening up of a small temporary ravine, it’s the fact that it ends like this.

cyclists rejoin carriageway

Yes, that’s a 30 mph sign – on a long straight wide road with fields on one side. Guess how many cars actually do 30 on it …

(I always find it strange that when there’s a small chance of a cyclist coming off on an uneven section of path, we need to put up all manner of barriers and warning signs. But when it has become inconvenient to accommodate them in safety any longer we happily wave the same cyclists off into oncoming traffic on an A road a few hundred yards further along the route. Go figure.)

Recce done, and having duly got lost in one of Bigtown’s more confusing suburbs, I returned to the park and enjoyed the novel pleasure of hanging out reading the paper and not doing all that much, in weather that was warm enough to not do so in comfort. If I have learned anything at all since moving to Scotland, it is to savour these moments when they occur.

bike and park in April

I would like to think we still have some warm weather to come, but in the event that yesterday was our summer (and it has reverted to grim grey miserableness since) I’m glad to have made the most of it.


July 12, 2016

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Bigtown Cycle Campaign. We had our Bike Message challenge, with a Bike Curious family cycling day following hard on its heels. With that out of the way, it was just the small matter of our weekly summer rides, which have grown and grown over the four years we’ve been running them and can often muster a couple dozen adults and kids, which makes quite a sight massed along the cycle paths of Bigtown.*

Over time, the summer rides have become, if not a well-oiled machine, then at least a machine whose chain is not bright orange with rust (unlike some of our participants’). The routes are all tried and tested ones that it’s possible to take a five-year-old on a bike along without the ride leader suffering palpitations. Starting at a local park, they almost all run along the river, over a nice foot and cycle bridge, which connects us via a quiet residential street to a choice of traffic-free or almost traffic-free routes north, west and northeast. The bridge is the only one which crosses the river in town that doesn’t have cars, a flight of steps, or a cyclist dismount sign on it. It is, in short, essential to making our summer rides the enjoyable, unstressed experience that we hope will encourage more families to get active, which just happens to be one of the coonsil’s stated goals too.

So guess which bridge the coonsil has decided to close for the duration of the summer, starting yesterday, without warning us?

I give up, I really do. As a cycle campaign, we’ve tried not to be too much of a giant pain in the backside of the coonsil although the coonsil might differ on that point. We’ve tried to keep our powder dry for the big battles while trying to cooperate over matters of joint interest. Running family-friendly rides, for instance, or our annual bike breakfast to bring together cycle commuters, councillors and officials in a celebration of cycle commting. In return we receive precisely zero cooperation from them. The only time we’re ever consulted about anything is when they need to show community support for a funding application in which case we’re shown the completed drawings with a week to go and asked to give our approval. The rest of the time, if we want any warning about anything happening (good or bad) we have to keep an eye on a website which, while not exactly on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’ (to shamelessly steal from Douglas Adams), isn’t exactly anywhere obvious either. Like the coonsil’s own website, for instance.

I’ll tell you this. In five years as a local campaigner, the biggest victory we ever won was after some anonymous nutters covered the town in colourful reflective knitting which got us into the ‘and finally’ slot on Reporting Scotland and resulted in the quiet removal of several barriers and chicanes after a decent interval had passed. Nothing else – not polite emails, not letters to councils, not meetings with officials, not quiet behind-the-scenes lobbying with national organisations, not trying to work in partnership, not anything – has been anything like as effective as holding them up to ridicule on the evening news.

They should consider themselves warned …

* Although we rarely are massed because we’ve had quite a decent success in getting novice cycling families to join us which is great but means that they are usually on bikes that have spend the preceding 12 months in the shed, and so after about 15 minutes the ride has usually split up while one mechanical issue or another is sorted.

The Tarmac Fairy is Dead. Long Live the Tarmac Fairy

May 24, 2016

community council agenda

In my role as secretary of the community council (fortunately – or unfortunately* – ours survived the night of the long knives which saw 38 of them axed by the coonsil due to failure to fill in the correct paperwork in the right order, something which I predicted as far back as December when we realised the evilly bureaucratic genius of the process involved in not having your community council dissolved) I have received what I believe to be the ur-specimen of a coonsil email:

1. It has been openly copied to 53 separate email addresses (I think I probably have access to every email address in the county by now due to the coonsil’s inability to master the use of the bcc field), although to be fair, that’s actually quite parsimonious for a coonsil email distribution list.

2. The email itself says nothing much except to direct me to an attachment which I then have to download to read. There was nothing in the email to suggest that this might be quite an important and relevant email, in contrast to most of the other regular emails I get from the council which are almost entirely irrelevant. But then I suppose if the coonsil thinks that all the emails it sends are vitally important even the ones attaching a newsletter which summarises the feedback it’s had on its strategy for the consultation over its strategy for the proposed merging of social and medical care.**

3. On downloading the attachment, because I’m diligent like that, I discover it is written in pure coonsil (‘undernoted’ anyone?), but on careful parsing I realise it’s a road closure notice – for our own road, as it happens – for the period of a month (I might have been tipped off about this by the weekly email I get which tells me about road works across the whole of the county, but which is fairly useless to anyone who doesn’t know their U33Bs from their C25Ns and so I’ve stopped reading it with any real attention).

4. On further inspection, this road closure notice appears to be an arse-covering exercise on the part of the council who have decided they’re going to be mending the road at some point during the next month but aren’t sure when, so they’re just going for a blanket order so they can close the road when they need to, which is wonderfully convenient for them, but slightly less convenient for the people who actually live on the road. When it comes to following the letter rather than the spirit of the law, this coonsil wrote the book…

5. Just to add injury to insult (from a cyclist’s point of view) they’re not actually mending the road, they’re just surface dressing it.

6. And finally, if we have any comments, we have to respond ‘within five working days’. Which would be great, if the road closure wasn’t due to start the day after tomorrow.

I have sent them some full and frank feedback all the same.

* Encouragingly, at least one of the axed bodies has effectively gone feral and has been busy spending the money it had built up in its account on useful things like bus shelters so the coonsil can’t get its hands on it. I bet being secretary of a rogue community council involves a hell of a lot less paperwork and more actual doing stuff. I wonder how many guerrilla bike lanes we could have got installed before anyone stopped us …

** I really wish I was making that up.


March 18, 2016

I’ve often wondered why I seem to be constantly running to catch up with myself but never quite manage to get through everything I need done.

I got up this morning, ready to tackle the job I’d been working on last night (till 11pm, eek, if you’re interested in work-life balance, can I suggest you never ‘downshift’ and take up a freelance career?) and didn’t quite get finished, before I went on to finish the other job that was queued up behind it to meet my Friday deadline and then have time in the evening to catch up with all the other things that have been piling up recently, including preparing for the Bigtown Environment Fair.

bus consultation posterAnd then I saw in my email that I’d been invited to an event on Facebook which turned out to be a petition against cutting the local bus service.* I signed, obviously, if only as a counter to the campaign to dual Big A Road, but did wonder whether there was a consultation exercise going on as it’s usually more effective to respond to those than sign a petition. It turns out that the consultation exercise consists of this poster (not sure exactly where it’s been put up – you’d hope in bus stops, but perhaps in car showrooms …) and a two week window when people can respond. There’s nothing on the relevant website, and if it wasn’t for the local Greens there wouldn’t have even been a consultation at all.

Rural bus services are a complicated subject and there’s no doubt that some of them cost a lot and don’t really deliver much benefit.** But you can’t just slash them with no warning when it’s often the most vulnerable people in society who depend on them. So rather than settling down immediately to crafting an executive summary for a report on empowering rural communities, there I was attemptin to actually empower a rural community to save its bus services. No doubt the coonsil will go ahead and do what it wants anyway but at least we will have tried.

And now, back to the grindstone…

* I was actually quite surprised to learn that Bigtownshire actually runs enough evening and Sunday buses to make them worth axing as Nearest Village certainly doesn’t have any, but then again, that’s why I don’t use the bus any more which is why the buses are so empty and why they have to be cut further …

** See also: massive boondoggle road dualling projects that carve up half the country and cost billions to shave all of five minutes off the journey to Notso Bigtown.

Half Arsed

July 15, 2014

Oh frabjous day, calloo, callay – a mere three weeks after I first complained (and by ‘complained’ I should point out that, as well as blogging, I did also write to one of my local councillors) about loose chippings on the road, they have done something about it. Well, sort of. First, of course, we had to go through the process whereby someone complains about something and the official writes back a nice patronising email explaining what the procedure is which means the complaint can’t possibly be true (in this case, allegedly, sweeping the road two and five days after surface dressing it) and then the complainant writes back, with photographs, pointing out that, never mind what the procedure might be, what has actually happened is that someone has covered the road ankle-deep in loose gravel and it is still covered in loose gravel and can they come and get rid of it please because it has now been two weeks, and only then do they actually do something about it. This is in contrast to what I keep hoping the process will be, whereby someone complains and somebody in charge immediately goes out to see if the complaint is valid and if it is, sorts it out as soon as possible while launching an inquiry to find out how it happened and then apologising profusely to the complainant while promising it will never happen again. Yeah, I know, I don’t really know why I think that might happen either.

So anyway, they have finally swept the road. Or rather, they have swept half the road – they’ve done the first stretch, but not continued half a mile further on to the much longer stretch and swept that bit. So I have written again. And maybe this time it will only be another week or so before they sweep the next bit and I can continue on my merry way with only buzzards to bother me.

Speaking of which, I thought ASBO buzzard might have given up for it was sitting on a branch just watching me almost at the top of the hill as I went past this morning. Possibly looking it in the eye and calling it a wuss and a quitter was a bit of a mistake, given that it managed to swoop twice – close enough that I could hear the wind through its feathers – before I actually topped out the climb. I really must get that head cam…