Regular visitors to this site will remember that we ran two bike surveys during this summer, one rural one at the Routin Brig, and one in town on the Whitesands. Both of these largely picked up leisure riders, but with the shops and many other businesses now fully open, we wanted to see what was happening on the High Street – has Dumfries’s newfound love of cycling extended to using bikes for shopping trips as well as rides out in the country or through Dock Park? If so, it will be to the benefit of the town’s businesses as recent evidence shows that those who walk, cycle or use public transport to get to the shops spend 40% more than those who drive in total.
After spending just over two hours counting all the bikes we could see along the High Street one busy Saturday lunchtime, the answer is ‘partially’. We stationed people at four spots along the street: at the Burns Statue, at Queensberry Square, at the Midsteeple, and at the fountain by English Street.
On average, each of our surveyors saw 28 cyclists in the course of our count (from 11:30 to around 1:30) – ranging from a child on a balance bike to a gentleman with a prosthetic leg who clearly found cycling an easier way to get about than walking. Having eliminated the duplicates, we estimate a total of 53 cyclists visited the High Street, most of them before 12:30. A few were just passing through, but most of them appeared to stop to visit a shop or cafe, or were carrying shopping of some kind.
As with our Whitesands survey, men outnumbered women and adults outnumbered children, an indicator of a more hostile cycling environment:
Interestingly, the children we did see were either kids cycling while their parents walked, or teenagers on bikes with their pals – a sign perhaps that family cycling for shopping and transport rather than leisure is lagging behind in Dumfries.
Although these figures are higher than we would have expected last year, in line with the news that cycling numbers in Scotland remains 44% up on last year, they are much less impressive than the sort of counts we were seeing on the Whitesands and out in the countryside. Partly it may have been the weather (it had rained earlier and it was still quite nippy without the sun, even though it was August). However, another reason could be the difficulty of accessing the High Street (legally) by bike. As we raised with council officers back in February it’s very difficult to get from the Whitesands to the High Street because the one-way system doesn’t exempt cycling.
Lack of good secure cycle parking doesn’t help much either. The most heavily used racks are those at the Burns Statue (and not always just by pedal cycles!) – despite the fact that one has been bent over almost since it was installed, which doesn’t fill you with confidence that your bike will be safe from a swipe by a vehicle. The other bike parking spots aren’t well signposted, and the Stove’s combined bike-and-bench parking doesn’t work so well in an era of social distancing. Most cyclists seemed happy to use a lamppost or even just lean their bikes against the shop they were visiting, but this can lead to problems for visually impaired pedestrians, and with the rise of e-bikes, the lack of good bike racks may be putting off other people from using their bikes to visit the shops.
On the positive side, we did count very few motor vehicles using the High Street illegally (outside the posted delivery hours) – just a couple of parked vans and one car that went right along the High Street without even delivering something. This may be due to the market stalls in the High Street on a Saturday, which not only bring in lots of people, they also make the space much less inviting to drivers chancing their arm on a lack of enforcement. It does show that by allowing businesses to make use of the High Street as a space for people rather than cars, then a virtuous cycle can emerge – stalls encourage more people, and discourages drivers, which in turn encourages more people and more business for the stalls and other businesses.
Which brings us to the point of this post! There are constant calls for more parking spaces in Dumfries, and over recent years there has also been an increase in people parking illegally in the town centre, despite occasional crackdowns by the police. With capacity on public transport limited by safety requirements, this pressure can only get worse, if everybody switches to driving. Based on our Saturday bike count, we calculate that – had everyone we saw who had cycled into town driven instead – at least 20 more parking spaces would have been needed to accommodate them. That’s the size of the car park outside the Visit Scotland office, down on the Whitesands.
The council’s Commonplace consultation closed earlier this month, and the second most popular suggestion (after sorting out the Dock Park crossing) was to close this car park to cars and use it instead for pedestrians and businesses, allowing more cafes and pubs to put out tables, for instance. It is measures like these that will bring life back to our town centre and help our local shops and businesses recover from the lockdown. But in order for it to work, we need to make it much more inviting for people to cycle into town instead of driving.
Fortunately, that could be entirely doable. As this map shows, almost everywhere in Dumfries and many of the surrounding settlements is less than 15 minutes cycling from the town centre – that’s approximately 35,000 people who could hop on a bike and be in town quicker than they could find a parking space for their car if they had driven. Not everyone will find it practical to do so – but, as our other surveys have shown, many local people have proved themselves keen to get out on a bike during lockdown and are continuing to do so. Now what we need to do is to encourage them to think of a bike as a practical means of transport as well as a fun way to get fit and enjoy the countryside.
What will this take? We hope that the outcome of the Commonplace consultation will see some measures that will improve access to the High Street for pedestrians and cyclists. In the short term, allowing two-way cycling up Bank Street and the Vennel and along the High Street, putting in bike parking, and preventing illegal parking in our pedestrianised streets will all make our town centre more inviting to locals and visitors alike.
In the longer term, providing safe, well signposted routes for cycling from all corners of the town – including Georgetown and other under-served areas – will make it easier for everyone who wants to to leave the car at home and save a parking space for those with disabilities or who are coming from further afield.
None of this is radical. In fact, most of it is already council policy, it’s just not being implemented or progress is microscopically slow. For instance, the council actually had plans in place to open up the town centre for two-way cycling but put them on hold because of concerns about signage and yet another revamp of the High Street. Swestrans have agreed a ‘five mile’ plan to make cycling in to all our towns from outlying villages easier – but nothing has yet been done to implement it. And just before the lockdown happened, we had discussed the placing of bike parking in the town centre, when everything got put on hold by the pandemic.
Now that things are moving again, we need urgent change if our economy is to bounce back fully. We think that bikes have to be part of that – and we hope the council understands that too.