Reading University’s proposal to build around 4,000 houses on green fields beside the River Loddon would massively increase traffic for all of us in the surrounding area. That's one reason why we've campaigned against keeping those houses in WBC’s local plan update. After all, how could our road infrastructure cope with 9,000 more cars when it’s already gridlocked now? But fear not: the Council has a card up its sleeve.
It’s aiming for a big reduction in car traffic over the next 10 years or so, thanks to… (drum roll)…. ‘active travel’. That’s cycling and walking to you and me. Since coming to power in 2022 the LibDem Council Executive has been keenly promoting active travel: ‘We’re determined to get people using their cars less…Many short journeys could be converted to active travel and public transport,’ it told us in its Summer 2022 glossy Council magazine.
In this year’s issue it’s: ‘All aboard for active travel’ and ‘Bike to the future’. Public transport features too: ‘We are urging everybody to think about talking [sic] the bus.’ (Freudian typo there, perhaps — is it all just ‘talk’?)
The Council has a plan
In March this year the Council published its Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan. Here we’re told that ‘continued traffic growth on the existing road network would be unsustainable and result in increased congestion’ (p.11). Indeed it would. And you’d think it would mean showing a red card to the horrendous Hall Farm housing proposal, but our Council has other ideas.
So what is the Infrastructure Plan? It’s mainly about constructing lots of cycle paths, for which the council can get government funding. They are planned to run along main roads, such as the A327, Barkham Road, Hurst Road, and Reading Road Winnersh. There will also be a number of so-called greenways intended for ‘a range of users, such as pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians’ (p. 17).
The Council don't say so outright, but they want people to switch in numbers to active travel and public transport, so they can then allow for more housing, without burdening the road networks with more cars than currently. Their Plan says that ‘30% of car journeys within the Borough were relatively short, and there is a real potential to swap these shorter journeys for more sustainable modes’ (p. 11). Take away 30% of existing car journeys, and thousands more vehicles on our roads can be managed. The Council can then wave through 4,000 houses to be built at Hall Farm.
But how realistic is it to expect residents to leave their cars behind, and cycle or get a bus? Last year the council carried out a public consultation suggesting it's going to be tough. They received 2,641 responses on people’s usual modes of travel. Over a third of people said they usually travel ‘in or around the borough’ by car. 16% said they cycle, 8% said they go by bus. On that basis, over 80% of the borough don't usually cycle and over 90% don't usually take the bus.
It’s true public transport is notoriously poor in the Borough. According to the Infrastructure Plan, residents going by bus to amenities like shops, schools, GP surgeries, etc, have to travel for significantly longer than in the South-East generally. It’s not surprising there’s a reluctance to use the bus. There needs to be a lot of catching up to do before anything like the kind of use is made of public transport that the Council is hoping for.
In any case, the survey was not ideal from all points of view. 43% of respondents were aged 60+, compared to 22% of the Borough population. With so many respondents likely to be retired, the survey may considerably under-represent car use for work purposes. Also, the Council didn't ask about car journeys in general, but just those within the Borough. So car use for commuting to Reading, Bracknell or beyond wasn't counted. (Well, it was a WBC ‘consultation’ …)
What sort of car journeys does the Council’s Infrastructure Plan tell us people might be prepared to give up on? Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Let’s look instead at a smaller-scale but more local road use survey that tells us how people travel in this part of the Borough.
A local survey
In January 2020, our ‘big sister’ organisation SOS Save Our Villages carried out a survey of road users which provides some useful information, focused on an area that would be directly affected by massive new housing at Hall Farm. The SOS Save Our Villages campaign was based in Shinfield, so it’s likely the great majority of the 305 responders came from this area. The survey, processed via the SoGo Survey platform, used Facebook and SOSSOV’s web site mailing list. It was conducted just before the Covid crisis hit the country, but traffic volumes since then seem across the country to have generally returned to their pre-lockdown levels.
As with the WBC survey, people answering the questions were self-selected. Nearly two-thirds had lived in the area for 8 years or more. Car ownership was very high, with the number of cars owned roughly equating to the number of adults per household. No household responding to the survey was without a car. This table sets out shows some of the key findings of the survey in percentage terms, focusing on journey times and mode of journeys:-
Unsurprisingly given the huge expansion of the Shinfield population recently, 87% of responders said their journey times had increased in the previous five years. This didn't only concern commuting, since that figure was well above the 67% who mainly travelled in rush hours. Off-peak traffic had also increased noticeably, therefore. Most responders felt that the major road infrastructure put in to mitigate the Shinfield SDL housing, the Eastern Relief Road, either made little or no difference, or had simply moved traffic congestion elsewhere.
Public transport use more than once a week came in very low, under 10%. As a means of travel other than for pleasure, walking and especially cycling were likewise used by only very small minorities. In other words, there was little use in the Shinfield area near the proposed Hall Farm site, of what WBC calls active travel, or alternatives to the car. Why would that change?
Reduce road space?
The Council’s ambition to get people to leave the car at home for 30% of their local journeys looks a nonstarter in this part of the world. Studies of cycling in other areas show that the only way to achieve a real increase in cycling uptake is by installing segregated cycle lanes, not just sharing footpaths with pedestrians. If the Council does that, it will have to reduce road space in many places. Is it prepared to go ahead neverthless, and face down the inevitable backlash from thousands of motorists (with votes)? I wonder.