It’s election time (again). 3 out of every 4 years Portsmouth holds local elections and so, 3 out of 4 years we hold a hustings event to find out what each of the parties plans to do to tackle safety for people on bikes in our City.
This year we teamed up with Portsmouth Friends of the Earth to broaden our challenge to candidates; asking not only “what will they do for cycling” but, knowing that our City is breaching air pollution levels, what will they do to improve air quality? For us, these two go hand in hand – but what did the candidates think?
Just to set the scene, let’s remember that of over 205,000 residents; one third travel car-free, the level of cycling is much higher than the national average, everywhere in the City is within a 6 mile (or 30-45 minute) cycle and short commuter distances compared with the rest of the South East: 62% are under 5km. There are five train stations, three ferries, a hovercraft, and two bus companies, and 126,500 cars and one of the worst levels of air pollution in the country.
Representatives from the Lib Dems, Labour, UKIP, Conservatives and Greens were in attendance, along with a newcomer from the National Health Action Party. Each had 15 minutes to set out what they would do to answer our call. And, with a few exceptions, the answers were surprisingly similar.
Most of the candidates recognised the “Climate Emergency” motion recently declared at Cabinet – pledging to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030, but it is clear that if we stick with the status quo, the target will be missed. Portsmouth politics is on a knife edge, with relatively few votes deciding the leading party of the day. These discourages the bold politics that is needed to achieve this goal and clean up our air and our streets. They won’t get there quickly enough if they don’t pull together.
There are two examples of where more collaborative working across parties has led to some promising results. Compared to a few years ago, there now seems to be cross party agreement that there are too many cars in the City. This might sound glaringly obvious, but it’s taken a long time to get to this point. Cllr Lynne Stagg (the current Traffic and Transportation post holder) echoed the ex Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa (renowned for introducing bus rapid transit and bike lanes in his City) in stating that no one has a right to a parking space. She also flagged a news article from the 1960s crying out that something must be done about the traffic. At that point there were 10,000 cars in the city. Now there are 126,500. All of the parties agreed that residents parking zones, in some form or another, should be used to limit and reduce parking levels, from a roll out of the existing scheme at one end of the scale, to whole car-free zones at the other. However, be afraid of proposals for using private car parks to supplement on street parking overnight – the only thing holding back even higher car use levels is surely the limited supply of parking spaces!
The parties also agreed that low emission vehicles (battery or hydrogen) were part of the solution. Some relied on them more than others, with the Green Party in particular recognising that air pollution from cars isn’t only tailpipe fumes but brake dust which might actually be worse with heavier electric vehicles. The Conservatives started on-street electric vehicle charging and the current incumbents have continued the roll-out.
To make the changes that are needed, long term planning (at least 20 years) is necessary. And with our short electoral cycles, cross party agreement on the means of getting there is essential. Without it, anyone bold enough to raise their head above the parapet with the types of policies that are needed could get voted out, and we’ll be back to square one. And let’s be clear, these policies focus on massively reducing our dependency on cars for all but essential use.
So, what other ideas did the parties have?
On buses, several parties discussed cleaner technology, including a solar bus station at Tipner (Lib Dems); subsidised services (against years of cuts), addressing pricing, and public ownership of bus services.
On electric charging, most parties said they would continue with on-street charging to encourage uptake of private electric vehicles.
On infrastructure, there was far too little mentioned. Some of the parties recognised our “A City to Share” document and spoke of the need for segregated cycle facilities and the benefits of bike hire schemes.
The Greens went the furthest, saying that they’d use the planning system fix the “mess”, bring in a tax on workplace parking and secure cycle storage and scrap the City Centre Road which in its current state would make cycling in and out of the city worse than it already is; and encourage even more people to drive into the city.
The Lib Dems said they’d grow Park and Ride and continue to look for a new location to serve the east of the City. But there was no mention of the mass overhaul in walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure that would be needed to help us kick the car habit in the timescale that’s required. Cllr Stagg also spoke about the recent “cough cough, engine off” publicity campaign and pester power as a means of encouraging better driver behaviour – but there is limited evidence that such schemes make an impact.
Labour said they’d reduce traffic coming into the city and make park and ride use compulsory on match days. The Conservatives echoed proposals for segregated cycle facilities and said they’d deliver the infrastructure to give people choice – and this is the rub – if people can choose to use their cars at a lower cost to themselves than taking public transport, or more conveniently compared to walking or cycling – why would they switch? The car “choice” has to be made less attractive. As Veronica Wagner from the National Health Action Party stated – we should be planning for people not cars.
Overall, all of the parties had some good suggestions, many of which overlapped, and many of which would be controversial to car dependant voters who currently have little option for travelling more sustainably due to limited public transport services and scary cycle facilities. What’s needed is a major investment; bigger, longer term plans, and crucially, cross party working, without it, it’s clear that more people will suffer ill health as a result of poor air quality, and we will not meet the Climate Emergency deadline of 2030, never mind the DEFRA air quality compliance deadline of 2021. So – a call to action. We’ve worked with all the parties in power over at least the last ten years, can they commit to cross party working for at least the next ten years? Can they agree to state openly that this City cannot take any more cars, and must provide better infrastructure for other modes? Can they do what is needed to give us our City to Share?
2011 Census (via nomisweb, Office for National Statistics)
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Gustavo Petro, former Mayor of Bogotá, Columbia