I have been meaning to tell you all about Travel Choices for ages. Based in Dunstable and funded by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, the aim is broadly to help people to think a little differently about how they travel around and provide all the information you could ever need.
Dunstable, by the way, is a average sized town in Bedfordshire. It has quite a heritage with much medieval history connected to the Icknield Way (now the A505) and the infamous crossroad with the A5 (which in former times was Watling Street). This historic crossroad junction from which the town grew has also witnessed serious traffic jams and congestion which is what stays in people’s memory of the town. Fancy a town being known for its traffic jams? Yes that’s true; to make things even worse it has been featured on TV as a town where the recession has hit the traditional High Street very badly and worse than many other comparable towns. It has never been a town where cyclists have been out in number and the local authorities have done virtually nothing with the humble cyclist in mind. All in all it has a pretty shabby and run down image.
Things, however, have changed in recent years….
Enter Travel Choices. A while back I got talking to Alvina Farrow, the Active Travel Co-ordinator. Alvina and her colleagues are real advocates of sustainable transport and together a mine of information on all the local travel options and different ways of getting around. If you need to know how to go from A to B, they’ll tell you the best route, the bus number, bus times and so on; this all comes under the “personal travel planning” element of the service which is completely free of charge. They’re particularly keen to assist those who are starting a new job, or attending a college or university for the first time – in other words reaching out to people who might struggle with making the best choice as far as commuting is concerned.
Their premises is right in the middle of Dunstable, playing its own part in town centre regeneration. It’s quite conspicuous with a couple of planters outside which double up as places to park (and lock) your bike while you pop in.
Okay that’s all very interesting, now what about cycling?
In talking to Alvina, while professionally she keeps a good balance on travel options, it’s clear she is really positive about cycling and this shows itself through a number of their initiatives. It is almost as if they have brainstormed all the different reasons why people don’t ride bicycles and then they’ve come up with a solution. In other words, there’s no excuse for not cycling in Dunstable!
- Dr Bike. You say your bike is broken? Flat tyre or squeaky brakes? Well Dr Bike can do a free safety check and show you the best way of resolving the problem or even giving it a quick tweak here and there. Dr Bike pops up at various community events with his mobile workshop. Through links with Local Bike Shops (LBS) you could even get a discount on the cost of servicing etc.
- Dealing with busy roads. Travel Choices can either plan your route for you, to avoid busy roads. Alternatively they’ll cycle with you to help you gain confidence and skills in getting through those tricky junctions with a bit more ease
- No bike? No problem! Bikes can be loaned from advice given about the Wheels to Work scheme. Even battery assisted bikes are available. This is supported by their links to the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity
- New cyclist? The Bikeability course is available, again free of charge, to support cyclists who need some guidance or support in managing their early rides and getting to grips with cycling. This is also relevant for children who otherwise would be prevented from cycling by parents who might be too protective, albeit well intentioned.
- Not sure if you’re up to it? That’s covered if you’re 40+ with being able to have a quick health check (blood pressure, weight etc) on your own body through their partnership with the local health authority.
- Events have been organised to get local people in the mood and thinking about cycling. These include the Cycling Festival and a 100 mile organised cycle ride along with many other initiatives
I couldn’t resist asking Alvina herself about her own cycling. Does she ride a bike herself? Yes of course she does! A real sense of enthusiasm came through in our conversation. She enjoys all kinds of different bikes and showed that through grabbing a nearby Brompton and folding it up in the blink of an eye (this is one of her “party pieces” in talks in local schools etc). She also tours and simply oozes encouragement about getting out there on a bike.
And the outcomes are…. ?
One cannot help but wonder how an initiative like this will fair in the longer term. After all, we’re living in austere times with a shrinking public sector and are Travel Choices cost effective? How do you know if it’s provding us tax payers with good value for money?
On one level this is a straightforward one to answer. Undertaking surveys to measure the number of local cyclists making their way around the town under their own steam will be a positive measure. No doubt the use of the newly opened Luton Dunstable Bus Way and its parallel cycle track will be a good indicator, along side the numbers using the Bus Way itself. Local demand and interest in Travel Choices has been “absolutely fantastic” according to Alvina.
There’s no doubt there are so many positive reasons to support Travel Choices. Almost certainly there will be other knock-on effects rising from getting people to re-think their local travel. Through getting people out of their cars (especially for short local journeys) will improve the flow of traffic through the town; it will certainly have a positive environmental effect. You could argue the health of local people will also improve – cycling is a brilliant way to exercise and address those expanding waistlines which are all-too prevalant in the town.
I firmly believe the best advertisement for cycling is seeing other people happily cycling around. The more people that cycle, the more fashionable it will be. I long for the day when cycling will be the norm once again instead of it being seen as a poor man’s car, a reserve for those healthy sporty types or something for eccentric middle aged men (MAMIL*). Whichever it is, a rise in cycling has to be a win-win situation for the well being of local communities.
*MAMILS = Middle Aged Men In Lycra