As I started writing this I came across a tweet which had some data on it of car usage in Cardiff. Get a chair, sit down. Though I doubt this will surprise you. There are 15,000 people in Cardiff using a car to get to work. Nothing all that surprising in that. But, get this, 15,000 people using a car to get to work for less than 2km distance. 2000 metres. The distance of a not particularly difficult swim session. And that’s a bloody disgrace. Among that 15,000 will be people who have valid excuses. And there will be those who believe they do. And those who have none whatsoever. Commuting needs a sea change. Give the people something to use, or something to disincentive. Perhaps a combination of both. But, in the end, the change is a trigger. Once you decide to make that change, only when a person decides to change do they actually do so.
Excuse the locality of this particular piece. But it might well apply to you too. After all, we all have those areas of our rides or commutes where we’re provided with a thing for which we should be thankful, it should be the perfect thing, but that promise remains unfulfilled in so many ways.
The Taff Trail is a wonderful idea but, as yet, not a wonderful thing. It runs from Brecon to Cardiff, a stretch of about 55 miles. You can see the map here. It’s separated from traffic for large parts of its length. It’s quiet, it’s generally safe, it should be a Nirvana. But it’s not. It’s barely Nickelback in its current form. It’s about not meeting its potential. The trail is also an active travel route (see here for Cardiff Council’s identification of existing active travel routes), it appears not only on the current plans but on future infrastructure plans. It’s existence in those plans suggests that it somehow meets active travel guidance, that it’s good enough for the future. It isn’t and relying on it as an active travel route is part of the problem. A lazy get out. Identify something that’s usable to meet your obligations but don’t set out about making it something that everyone would want to use. It’s lazy and it’s short sighted. It doesn’t make the person using it for the first time want to change.
This first piece about the Taff Trail will be about the stretch from Tongwynlais, just north of Cardiff, to the City Centre. It’s not far, 5-6 miles or so? The route actually continues, in broken form, add in a few more and you can get all the way to Cardiff Bay. It’s a commuter stretch. In due course, with some other fine contributors, I’ll be looking at the issues that plague the Trail along its length generally, but for now, this is a local rant.
Cardiff has a traffic problem. It’s choked by traffic. There are rat runs. There are choke points. Everyone is in a rush. There are very few places to park cheaply. Parking outside my office would cost me a staggering £10 per day. And that’s one of the cheaper areas. I could probably afford those parking charges, many cannot, yet still they do. In some ways it’s good to disincentivise, if there are viable alternatives. I don’t dislike driving, I like cars, but if you want to arrive in work any later than 7 am, it is a soulless, frustrating experience. And my average commute time home by bike is the same as my average rush hour drive. And that’s a 17 mile commute. In some of the worst cases it’s taken me 2 hours plus to get home. My average ride is 55 minutes. Even when my drive is shorter in time, I don’t get that exercise, that feeling of being at one with the world, it’s a no brainer.
Having a traffic free solution in a City Centre is a quite wonderful opportunity. If it could just deal with its imperfections. Despite some efforts in Cardiff to make cycle lanes and safe spaces it’s still plainly dangerous out there. The car free trail, well away from roads, is the perfect solution, or it should be.
If you live north of Cardiff you have an issue. It’s difficult to legally enter Cardiff on a bike. You cannot use the A470 (a busy dual carriageway) because it’s subject to a traffic regulation order that prohibits bikes. You cannot use the ‘Coryton roundabout’ for the same reason. The only legal entrance is either a complicated series of underpasses which, once negotiated, take you back onto the main roads, or you can use the Taff Trail. The trail isn’t well supported by branches, it’s simply a North – South straight line with little or no inter-connectivity. If you live on the far east of Cardiff, it’s no practical use to you. As much is evident in the current integrated network map. The green and yellow caterpillar (8-7 onwards) is the Taff Trail, mostly. There are breaks, there are few places where it’s obvious how you get to the ‘main branch.’ And if you can, can you do so safely?
The Taff Trail is also shared use along its length. Shared use paths are, of course, the great cost saver. But there is a tension where paths are shared. Who has rights of way? Who has better rights? Who IS right? And does it matter if you’re right when it all goes wrong. Even shared divided paths cause issues. They separate the walker and cyclist, reduced the room available for both, cause issues as to legality, mess things up even more. It’s an imperfect solution. But I don’t think there’s any escape from that, it is what it is. We just have to get along. But, in certain places, dog walkers and cyclists, while not in outright war, are at least involved in an ongoing conflict. In the school holidays it’s awash with families, as it should be. But any sense of ‘lane discipline’ is lost. It’s hard to make progress as a travel route, much easier for a sightseeing one. It doesn’t fit all. It suits very few.
Let’s start with getting on the trail. You hang a right at Tongwynlais school, down the road, under the A470, round to the right and……..and that’s where the issues start. A quite spectacularly poor surface. Rutted, bits missing, mud, used by utility vehicles who service the electricity sub station.
Hang a left and, bit of gravel, bit of missing tarmac, barrier, grind on gears, get onto main path. Phew, we’re done. And then, then it’s ok. Nice surface, some rooted sections, but ok. Well, it’s ok NOW. But for well over a year, to deal with improvements to the Radyr weir, cyclists were taken off the trail and sent all around the shop. The war on motorists rarely sees such closures.
But, actually, it’s fairly nice. Sure, it’s a bit narrow, a bit windy, it’s pitch black in the winter, so you need good lights, that’s when the LED wars begin. But, yes, it’s good. And on a bright summer morning, 6 am, sunrise, no wind, good temperatures I tell you there’s nowhere better to be commuting. There’s a river along the entire length, wildlife, beauty. Perhaps I should take that as the default position because, frankly, on the best days, it’s simply brilliant.
But then Autumn comes and the scene changes massively.
And that’s a pretty good shot. Minimal leaf intrusion. But that’s a good day because most of the time it’s leaf carpet, then leaf mulch, then massive danger. Cardiff City Council DO clean it, but how much, how often and how well is up for discussion. My view is that it’s not enough and never enough. And there are some legal issues, is the trail a highway within section 41 of the Highways Act 1980?
You see, there are some advantages if it were. It would be maintainable at the public expense (indeed that is the definition of a highway in the Act) and that would create a duty to clean it and to keep it clear of ice in winter. It is cleaned but it certainly isn’t kept free of ice. Not ever, not at all. There’s no doubt that there’s a right of way over the path. Interestingly, in the cases of conflict cyclists have been called on to respect the Highway Code. It’s not a footpath, it’s not a cycle track. It’s just a way. I could probably work through the legalities with some time, and some parts of the trail might be treated differently to others. But, for now, we have to assume that no duty arises. So ad hoc cleaning and no maintenance. Money is apparently spent, though it’s quite hard to see where it all goes. Now, I take huge care of my bike. It gets used in all weathers. It’s cleaned daily. But there’s no excuse for an active travel section where, on the worst bits, your bike looks like a particularly grim CX session in 400 yards. And, if it does, it’s not about the bike. It’s about safety. Sure, you can slow down, take more care, but sometimes the inevitable happens. Chuck in some chicanes and locked gates and being dirty isn’t just about the dirt. It’s about being fit for purpose.
It’s not just cycling remember. Active travel routes are for travel. That includes walking. And it’s as stunning a walk on a lovely day as it is for cycling. But the same comments about maintenance apply to walking too. It’s all very well being able to walk but if you arrive at your destination filthy and covered in mud and leaf detritus, that’s off putting. If you have to make a detour because a bridge underpass is flooded for a week, that’s ridiculous, particularly when the ‘straight’ route is across a busy dual carriageway. If you don’t feel safe because of the lack of lighting then that’s problematic. And there have been troubling attacks on the taff trail too. It’s difficult to know what to do about that. Increased policing perhaps, but lighting would go some way towards helping. It would also go some way towards reducing the arms race in bike and personal lighting. But, realism demands that we reflect that such things cost money. A lot of it. There are energy saving solutions though. Solar, LED, there are even solar storing reflective paths. Not good, of course, if their under cover or covered in stuff…
On we go.
At Forest Farm you exit the trail temporarily (this happens along its length), past Cardiff High School Old Boys RFC, then you pick the trail up again. Through a gated section, a mini muddy chicane with a slippy wood border, and 1/2km or so of tight corners. Eventually you exit back onto the road again.
Another 1/2km or so and you’re into Hailey Park. Welcome, everyone, to Hailey Park. The war zone. Because it’s here, in the vast open green spaces, that the conflicts arise. Fast cyclists, poor cyclists, good cyclists, slow cyclists, pedestrians, dogs and dog walkers. Some people are idiots. And that transcends their mode of transport. Ring a bell to warn and you’ll get an acknowledgement from some and a scowl from others. Shout a cheery hello, where’s your bell? It’s hard to predict what will happen. Hell is other people.
Through the Park, round the back of the Welsh school and then it’s well surfaced. Nice. Pick your times and it can be quiet. Hit it at 8.30 am and it’s teeming with students walking to class and two way cycling. And that’s equally great, because walking should be a default choice, but also illustrates the issue with shared use paths, two way cycling commuters and, well, path sense. I cycle as I drive, I hope. But much of what would be good discipline is lost by many users.
But it is nice. Look at it. Just watch out for debris from fallen leaves, branches or even the trees themselves. Because, in winter, it can get pretty hairy indeed.
That river is generally 3-4 metres lower than that. It’s rare for it to intrude on the trail. But sometimes it does. And it’s this section, with so many trees, that annoys me most of all. It’s filthy. The Council claim monthly cleaning. Of course, we have to be realistic, but that’s not enough, nowhere near enough. I’ve cycled back up the trail with a clean bike that’s turned into something akin to CX. Back onto the wet main roads and it then cleans itself. That’s an issue, and it’s dangerous. So easy to crash, particularly when that mush turns to ice. I have, once or twice, when being extraordinarily careful. It happens. No real damage done thankfully.
And that’s the kind of thing you get in the rain, often extending across the path. There are horses allowed here too. And they spread mud and horse stuff. And it’s allowed to stay there until you complain, loudly, on twitter. It’s not good enough.
From there, it’s all good. Some of the year, anyway. Because, this week, the first of the twitter announcements from Bute Park. The closure of the section you see above, the nice ish bit (beyond the puddle) right down to Cardiff Castle is tied to sunset. So, as the days grow shorter, the entrance points close earlier. Today, the park closes at 8.30pm. 41 minutes before sunset, around an hour before actual darkness. And so it goes on, on an ever increasing spiral to mid December when the park closes at around 3.15pm at a time when it’s never dark.
Safety is, apparently, the reason. But what safety? You can actually still enter Bute Park at various points which are unsecured such as the North Road bridge and the ambulance station entrance. All that happens is that you can’t exit if you go southbound and, if you go northbound, you have to carry your bike over a stye. Or, if you like, you can use the adjacent part of the trail (confusingly this is properly designated as being the trail). And a more wretched path of scum and villainy you’d be hard pressed to find. Mud, rutted parts, potholes, standing water, leaf scum, confusing shared use sides which put cyclists on a narrow space next to each other. A mess. So, if you’re a 9-5 commuter, you lose access to one of the better bits after early Autumn. The clock is already ticking.
All of this is hugely negative. It’s negative because, with just a bit of imagination and effort, it could be so much better. Why not widen certain sections? Clean the damn thing more often? Keep parts of it open or, if you want to close parts off, make the other usable bits safer. Because, at the moment, you’re actually better off using one of the many new 20 mph zones around parts of Cardiff, cycle in the middle of the lane at 20 to avoid being put in danger. Possibly safer, not quite as easy, but you’d almost certainly arrive at your destination an awful lot cleaner.
The Taff Trail, it’s a wonderfully brilliant, amazing, inspiring, horrible, nasty, useless thing. Let’s sort it out.