Urban planning

Discovering the G Spot

Riding a bike - it should be as simple as, riding a bike.

Riding a bike – it should be as simple as, riding a bike.

No, I haven’t gone completely mad and started writing editorial pieces that focus on female sexuality. But I do want to speak about a sweet spot, so it’s kind of the same. And it does with the letter G. And hey, the title got you in, didn’t it?

Sure, I’ve written about a similar topic before here, but this time I’m taking a different tact. To not do so would be, well, boring.

Over a year ago, I started my Masters in Urban Planning, with a pretty simple goal – I wanted to design and plan spaces for people so that they could ride a bike. I wanted to eradicate (or at the very least mitigate) the nagging insistence of obesity and, perhaps more alarmingly, childhood obesity. I spent 6 months signing on to workshops, forums, short courses, conferences and took time off of work to speak to everyone I could in the profession of planning to see if it was what I wanted to do. I read the various prospectuses, I pored over numerous websites and I gobbled up their promises of planning utopias. A sample of their assertions as to what a Planning course would entail are below:

RMIT: This program combines studies in urban planning with the social, economic and political environment and creates efficient, interesting, practical, healthy and sustainable places for people to exist.

Melbourne Uni: Urban Planning promotes the establishment of economically viable, socially just, environmentally sustainable, and safe and healthy human settlements. It has never been more timely than now, as we adapt to global changes that impact our cities.

And Deakin Uni: Deakin’s Bachelor of Planning (Honours) is a distinctive course that brings together the disciplines of planning, design, urban studies and society in a single degree program.

I applied. Needless to say, I was accepted. And needless to say I was excited.

My first year has produced good results – HD’s for everything, except Economics (but I was only 2% off a HD so, you know, let’s be gentle). Throughout the year, many conversations were had, many thoughts formed and numerous opinions argued. All so far so good. But…there’s a little irritation nagging away at me. A little annoyance, a little inconvenience that won’t shift. It’s to do with governance. I have done a little searching for the best definition of this and it is, perhaps alarmingly, from good ol’ Wikipedia. It claims: Governance refers to “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language.”

Largely then, governance is the how rather than the who.

In terms of Planning as a discipline, a student’s head can be filled with the most delightful notions of best practice, wonderful stories of success from afar and quotes from respected journal articles (that have all been judiciously peer reviewed, obviously). But then I want to ask: And then what? Do we go out into this world equipped with enviable evidence of how we should be planning our places but really have no capacity to implement it? If the laws (and norms) that govern the country are the same that govern planning, what capacity is there for change? In short, to encourage a lifestyle that is (at the very least) not beholden to the car? What is the point of this knowledge without good governance and a system that will utilize these learnings? Is it not, in fact, callous to dangle delights in front of a prospective student and say “Look at all the things you will learn” but leave out the bit that says “you will never have a chance to employ them”. Planning is perhaps the cruelest course in the university’s prospectus.

Conferences suffer a similar fate. The minds of the best planners, engineers, designers, health professionals and academics often meet throughout the year either through formal associations such as the Planning Institute of Australia or at conferences such as the Liveable Cities Conference, to be held later this year in Melbourne. Who are these people going to these events? Sure, there’s an element of networking and seeing old faces, and that’s lovely, but in my experience, and during all the conferences and forums that I attended as part of my research before committing to study, not once did anyone remain in the room who actually had the ability to change anything. In other words, the Mayor or otherwise appropriately elected official would ‘open’ the conference, say a few words and then they would leave. All that was left was a bunch of people who would be receiving information about how to do their job better but have no ability to put this knowledge into practice. If I was 15 I would be saying “Hashtag frustrating”, round about now.

Finally, the cost to attend these conferences is prohibitive for most people. If we take the Liveable Cities Conference as an example, it costs $1,055 for the two days to attend. Who else is going to go to that aside from people who are getting paid to go by their place of employment, even though their place of employment is simply feeding into that complicit world of not challenging the governance structures that prohibit change. If liveable cities are for everyone, shouldn’t anyone be able to attend? I’m beginning to feel like it’s some sort of conspiracy and that the prices are such that the average person’s attendance is precluded. If people could attend and see the broken system that is currently plaguing planning decisions in Melbourne, they would undoubtedly demand better. They would at the very least expect the Mayor to stay until the first coffee break had commenced.

But I’ll persist. I will get my Masters. I will maintain my grade average and I hope with it my motivation. I just want people to be able to ride a bike and to live in a city that supports that. Hopefully somewhere I will discover the sweet spot of governance that allows me to do that.

If all this fails, I’ll become the Mayor.

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What everyone should be able to do, safely.

Doing it with the Danes

Copenhagen: a city that, you know, gets it.

Copenhagen: a city that, you know, gets it.

Facilitate (verb)
From the 1610s, “make easy, render less difficult,” from French faciliter “to render easy,” from stem of Latin facilis “easy” (see facile). Related: Facilitated; facilitates; facilitating. (from online etymology dictionary).

I start this little post with that tiny history on the word of facilitate as it is such a simple word but encapsulates so much about what a city or built environment could (and maybe should) do for its citizens. Depending on how a city is designed, how equitable it is, how healthy, how ‘smart’, how pleasurable, affordable etc. it will enable a citizen to be their best or not. The city, in this sense, facilitates good citizenry.

In Denmark (a place that should be the benchmark of how places should operate, in my opinion), this is evidenced in a myriad of ways, but most notably through policy implementation. Policies on health for example, don’t merely operate in a vacuum as they might in, oh I don’t know… Australia, where they are seen as isolated. They are incorporated into the city itself and the machinations of how that city operates. In doing so, the city becomes a space for policy to manifest, raising otherwise turgid documents from merely aspirational quotes, ideas and stats that no one will ever read.

In a practical sense, an example can be found through looking at the current policy on men’s health in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey published in 2009 (which can be seen here), 68% of males over 15 years of age reported doing no exercise or having low exercise levels (supporting facts and figures can be seen here). Obviously, this is sub optimal and the government of the day instigated numerous policies to address such  pressing – and depressing – health concerns. So far, so good.

One of these policies was the Healthy Communities initiative, whereby local Councils and local organisations received funding to implement exercise, nutritional and behaviour change programs in the hope that such stark statistics would change, for the better. Along with Diabetes Australia, the Heart Foundation and others, one such organisation was Cycling Australia (CA) in conjunction with the Amy Gillett Foundation. It was explained that what CA’s role would be on the government website and for clarity, it is worthy of reading it in its entirety:

Cycling Australia (with the Amy Gillett Foundation) – AustCycle – AustCycle aims to equip people with the skills and confidence to cycle regularly through the provision of cycle training. The types of training courses range from beginner programs through to skills for riding in more challenging situations, including coping with traffic and riding safely in groups. AustCycle training courses are designed to teach participants of all ability levels how to ride in on-road and off-road environments and can be targeted for new cyclists or people who have ridden before and wish to increase their activity and bicycle use. Programs can cater for between three to eight students per Teacher depending on the skill, confidence and attitudes of participants.

The program uses a train-the-trainer model to train people to become accredited AustCycle Teachers who then deliver cycling training to the community through their own businesses or for an accredited AustCycle Provider (e.g., cycling school). AustCycle Providers are independent licensees able to run training courses that their Teachers are accredited to deliver. AustCycle Providers are usually small businesses, but can also include community groups, cycling clubs and local councils.

The AustCycle Teacher training course includes elements on nutrition, achieving a healthy weight through exercise and developing programs for individuals and groups to address healthy weight and fitness objectives.

For more information, visit the AustCycle website.

Now this brings me nicely to my point of this post. Whilst such programs may encourage some people to ride a bike more often, it is unlikely that such initiatives will have long lasting positive health implications on a large cohort if the built environment does not encourage (or facilitate) people to ride their bike. It seems to me that health programs and health promotion in general in Australia goes for the quick fix when it comes to cycling. It is far more effective to build separated bike lanes if you genuinely want your health policies to have desired, long term health outcomes, but it is also far more politically contentious. In annual reports it is easier to say ‘We funded all these organisations to come up with ideas as to how to reduce the inactive lifestyle of most males in Australia’, than it is to say ‘ We have put a lot of people offside by building better infrastructure for cycling, and we probably won’t see any evidence of how this will improve health outcomes for at least 3 more election cycles’.

Unless we have political will to genuinely change the paradigm as it currently stands however, we are simply throwing good money after bad. We know what we need to do. Currently, the built form of a city (and largely suburbia, too), does not facilitate riding a bike with ease and a tension therefore exists between policy, practical implementation and long term behaviour change and I would argue that it is this trifecta of ingredients that is needed for a citizen to be healthy. Unless the built form of a city changes to encourage cycling and make it easy, facilitating positive health outcomes for citizens is stymied by the city itself.

This whole post can be reduced to six little words: let’s just do what Denmark does.

 

 

Allowing Planning to be Praised Pupil, not Dejected Dullard

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A recent article in The Guardian beseeches us to make town planning as cool as architecture, for the sake of our cities.

The author, Tom Campbell, makes a compelling argument, pointing to the desperate need for better planning given the current state of affairs. Whilst he focuses on England, the same arguments for the need for this paradigm shift could be applied to many, many countries and certainly here in Melbourne, Australia where barely a day passes without editorial content spilling out of local papers on urban planning and how badly we’re currently tracking.

But this is an interesting point, and brings me to mine. Aside from the fact that everyone seems to have an idea of what Melbourne (or indeed, other cities) should be doing, planners themselves are forbidden from doing what they do best: namely, plan. If the same professional disregard was afforded to medical practitioners, our health would be even more woeful than what our bursting bellies and belts already tell us it is. Similarly, if we neglected the advice from scientists regarding climate change…oh wait, I live in Australia. Bad example. Move on. The point here is that – for the most part – we respect people in positions that we know nothing about, even when we claim we do, and let them get on with their job, safe in the knowledge that they have studied and worked in a field for longer than us and therefore are infinitely better equipped to solve problem X, or at least better placed to discuss it.

Not so with planning. Planning has become the most forlorn child in the career classroom. Always relegated to the back of class, it sits there dressed in forever beige, bruised and bereft, despondent and desperate, eyeing it’s more fashionable friends of design and architecture, vying for teachers attention. But what is so desperate about this pitiful image is that planning could be incredible if it was allowed to be. Brimming with brilliance and bright ideas planning it has been beaten into submission but that does not mean its ideas are any less fantastic, any less valid.

What seems to happen in planning is that people enter the profession and find themselves not only not being brave, but not allowing to be. A friend of mine recently joined a large planning firm where he had to find fault with a perfectly good submission for a medium rise development. I asked him if he had sold out. His embarrassed, awkward smile spoke louder than any words that followed. Sadly, he has become that child at the back of the class.

It’s not up to us, as planners, to make planning ‘cool’ again as the article implores us to. It’s up to politicians and better forms of governance to allow us to do our job. Planning is already cool. Planning has the ability to get you to work on time, or not. It enables you to ride a bike to school, or not. It ensures you have green space near you, or not. It provides security, safety, better amenity. Or not. But what planning has become is a diluted, impoverished version of itself. People, you’re not seeing what its potential actually is.

I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like in if planners were actually encouraged and allowed to do their job. It would save people from having to tweak the edges and muck about with quick fixes. A recent post on Planetizen entitled ‘How to Crowdfund a Bike Lane’, is an excellent example of this. Heralded as a positive outcome, I can’t help but ask ‘What have we become that we virtually have to hand around the hat and take donations for built infrastructure to make our cities safe and the sort of places we want them to be? Why have we failed so much and ignored solid advice about how to plan place and space?’ I’m all for participatory planning and a keen advocate for it, but planning like this is just, well, sad.

Again, tirelessly, I say: if things were working and everything was awesome and the environment and our physical health was optimal I’d say ‘As you were – keep prohibiting us from proper planning’. Sadly, we’re not in such an enviable position. But we could be if you just let us get on with our job.

Still in doubt? Then ask yourself this: why would planners want to make the world worse? After all, we live here too.

 

I Might Just Sit This One Out

purse

Everyone likes a bit of a sit down, don’t they? The above captures a lass doing that in the busy Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne as she lolls about on a piece of public art.

A moment of reflection, a brief pause, a small comma in an otherwise lengthy sentence (okay, you get the drift). The point is, we like seats, and we like public seats. I’m not going to dwell on the whole ‘we like looking at people and being with people and that is why we go to public parks and sit aside from just to find respite’ thing here, suffice to say that that is true – albeit long winded.

What I do want to focus on however is planners and designers who decide where seats will go, and why. In my own wonderings around and about, I have witnessed all manner of seating in frankly obscure places, leading me to believe that seats can be as pointless as carrying an extra tube but not knowing how to fix a flat. In short, it’s just for show.

A seat in a pointless place says ‘We, as a Council, care and we offer comfort and respite and look here – a seat for you to spend some time on’. That’s what this seat looks like:

pb 1

If you were sitting on the seat, you would have the lovely Yarra river behind you, a smooth, easy bike and pedestrian path, er, behind you, and some really lovely old bluestone brickwork, um, behind you. And what would your view be?

pb 2

This: six lanes of traffic. Ahhh, the serenity.

Further along the Yarra river bike path (which I really can’t fault), is this utterly odd arrangement of seating:

yarra 1

It is honestly as though it was arranged for bickering siblings or bored couples. What’s such a pity is that the view from both seats is splendid:

yarra 2

 

I can’t help but wonder if the people who installed it merely read their directions incorrectly and they are meant to in a ‘V’ shape, but both looking out to the river, and indeed, each other.

Here’s a lovely nighttime snap of a lonely bench with 6 lanes of traffic in front of it. What is more perverse is that this is on the edge of one of Melbourne’s most splendid parks – the Fitzroy Gardens. Would you rather face traffic or people and trees?

night bench

I know I am saving the best for last here, but this is too delicious. In the university ‘courtyard’ (and I use the term advisedly), near to where I live, there is this inviting, wonderful public bench amidst this hallowed seat of learning:

uni bench

Seriously, would anyone want to sit here? Would anyone want to even walk through here?

The world is not a perfect place, I know, but truly, could we not spend a little more time thinking about the placement of these public seats? Is it really so difficult to think about what you, as a person, would like to look at in the real world rather than what looks good on a plan?

Amongst all this bafflement, it was nice to notice the ducks on the way home and remember that when I ride my bike, I’m always sitting comfortably and the scenery is a moveable feast.

ducks

Face to the Fjord: A look at Oslo on the release of their new PSPL

A great blog here by the good folk at Gehl Architects. Do they ever do anything terrible?! Enjoy.

Cities for People

Oslo_feature Gehl Architects’ Public Space Public Life study of Oslo was made public today, March 24, 2014.
This ‘special feature #1′ aims to incite dialogue around the challenges and opportunities facing the public realm in Oslo and other cities.

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By Bonnie Fortune, freelance journalist
Facts and findings are based on Gehl Architects’ report
‘Bylivsundersøkelse Oslo sentrum’

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“Oslo is a small city where everyone knows one another,” says landscape architect and project leader for Levende Oslo (Lively Oslo), Yngvar Hegrenes. Norway’s capital city on the Olso fjord recently commissioned a Public Space-Public Life (PSPL) survey that took over two years to complete, despite the city’s compact size. Hegrenes is responsible for commissioning the survey, stating that Oslo was interested in taking a fresh look at their city center with input from knowledgeable outside sources. Hegrenes worked closely with the Oslo municipality, community business owners and organizations, and Gehl Architects to complete the…

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The real rules of the road

Absolutely brilliant post here thanks to accidento bizarro on how to use the road, no matter what mode of transport you use (according to the car).

accidento bizarro

It’s clear that many motorists ignore much of the Highway Code. However, the reasons for this have been obscure until now. As my teenage neighbour sloped out of her driving instructor’s car yesterday, a dog-eared scrap of paper fluttered to the ground in her wake. I picked it up, and realised I’d stumbled upon a top-secret document of extraordinary importance, which supersedes the Highway Code in all circumstances.

The Motorist’s Rulebook

1. Get out of the GODDAMN way.

a. Stopping or going slowly? Move over as far as possible. Up the pavement, preferably. Pedestrians? They’ll shift.Dorking Dene Street

b. Park quickly. Come on, it’s not a bus. You can get it in there. That’ll do.

c. Move quickly when someone lets you out, even if it means simultaneously steering, changing gear and doing that left-right-left thing with the indicators to say ‘thank you’.

2. No holding ANYONE up.

a. No indecision, particularly…

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Piecemeal planning: impracticality for pedestrians

path1  path2

No matter how much you might want people to walk somewhere, they will walk where they feel right.

There’s a little path that runs from the bottom of a road, near where I work, up the side of a park to the top of a hill. This path, in the 6 years I have worked nearby, has not been completely paved. You can see (if you squint) that the picture on the left does actually have a slab of concrete but it then ends and the pedestrian is left with a treck to the top with bare dirt. At the time of taking these snaps (about, oh, I don’t know, an hour ago), we are at the tail end of summer so things are looking a little less muddy than they will in 6 months’ time. Come July however, that is a pretty nasty path to walk up (or down).

So why, I hear you ask, why do these brave pedestrians make this perilous sojurn, risking mud on their clothing and a nasty spill? Here’s your answer:

bus stop

Low and behold! A bus stop! Who knew?!

In my world – in my ideal, wonderfully bike, pedestrian and public transport friendly world – there would be an accessible (and paved) path leading from where people live (the top of the hill) to where people catch the bus (the bottom of the hill).

You might look at this and ask “Goodness, this is one path, who cares?”, but I think it is a small demonstration of not only piecemeal planning but not looking at how people move, naturally, and designing places for them with this in mind, instead of looking over a plan and thinking ‘Mmm, straight lines look good from up here so we’ll use them at street level’. Well, we’re not birds.

Certainly, there is a road (with a footpath on the side of it) that could be walked up to reach the top of the hill, but that would involve at least another 5 minutes of exercise. What would you choose to do? Walk down the feetmade (as opposed to handmade) path through a park and get another 5 minutes in bed, or walk down the road?

Recognising people’s behaviour and how they move in public space has to be more considered in planning. Otherwise you end up putting in partway paths for pedestrians, with impractical applications.

Seven Year Olds and Seagulls

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Cycling along the other day, I caught this delightful little pic (yeah, I know it’s little). It’s of a young girl, maybe 6 or 7 years of age who was just skipping, running and generally being active with the seagulls on a hill. Her parents/guardians were on top of the hill, however they’re out of this frame. It was a beautiful day and I thought to myself: that little girl feels good. She’s in the city and she’s feeling good. She obviously feels safe, and from what I can tell she is doing something that is fun whist being active.

For her, this city is working.

Imagine if that’s what we did: designed cities for seven year olds and seagulls.

Not all Nights Need to be White

Oftentimes, even without a night that is white, Melbourne still gets it right. The City of Melbourne does a simply amazing job in welcoming people, inviting them to stay in the spaces between buildings. After securing my bike, I had wander through the city and this is what I witnessed:pub1

That truly is a bloke just reading a book at one end of a long wall and a bloke at the other end strumming a guitar and then a random few people chatting, staying and just ‘being’ in between these two urbanites. Nice.

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Meanwhile, further up the same street, a seriously good busker, Jack Man Friday draws a not insignificant crowd as he entertains young and old alike (and yes, you do need a permit to busk in Melbourne and have an audition – basically if a busker is legally busking in Melbourne, the quality is beyond question).

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And then, further still – a couple of folks play chess as onlookers, well, look on.

It may be presumptuous of me to say, but I suspect that these two may never have met were it not for the novelty sized chess game. Connections are made, albeit fleetingly, but that is the role of a city that works well and space that is utilised affectively. It allows for these connections. It facilitates them. It invites them and welcomes them when they arrive.

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People stop and stay to smell and touch as they discover this pop up herb garden outside of the Town Hall (this was actually seen two weeks ago, but it just proves my point that this happens in Melbourne often).

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And lastly, people lounge outside of the State Library on beanbags provided by the Library (as is the chess). It could be argued that there is nothing really to ‘do’ here, but that is the point. People stay, because people are there. People go where people go because, well, we like people. We like being with them. We don’t want to talk to them (necessarily), but we like being near them and knowing they are there. People are interesting. People watching is legitimate.

I look at how I use the city on a day like this one and know that I will be taking the long route to wherever I need to go just to be in the city for longer.

This is a city that invites me to stay, and I welcome the invitation every time.

A Meter Might Matter but Markings are Massive

The current campaign by the Amy Gillett Foundation as discussed previously on this blog is A Meter Matters. And – not surprisingly – I have an opinion about it. By way of explanation, let me share an anecdote.

Several years ago, I attended a furniture making course which culminated in us students producing a hall stand. I realised fairly on in the piece that although I enjoyed working with wood, I perhaps didn’t possess the technical aptitude to produce a fine piece of furniture worthy of a Sotherby’s auction. However, after sanding all the bits and pieces, drilling holes for my dowels and laying it out on the floor for assembly, I was good to go. Or so I thought. I hastily put glue in the holes and messed about with the legs of the table, a mid level shelf type thing and dowels which seemed to be everywhere. In short, the assembly process was going less than smoothly.

I called over my teacher, who was thankfully a lovely, kind man who started to pull bits off and stick them back together where they should be. It was such a monumental mess at this point however that two other students had to be called upon to help out. Everything seemed to be covered in glue. Whilst looking at the commotion in front of me I started to laugh with clear embarrassment and said “My God! It’s a complete disaster!”

My lovely teacher, whilst bent over my wooden ‘sculpture’ and trying desperately to secure a sash clamp, looked up at me and said the words I’ll never forget. With sincerity and kindness he said “You’re giving it a go”. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Not the platitudes of ‘It’ll be fine!’, or ‘It’s going to be amazing!’, or ‘You’ve found your calling!’.

So how does all this relate to A Meter Matters? I feel as though the AMY Gillett Foundation is not really doing anything earth shattering or anything fantastic – they are merely giving it a go. If I’m completely honest, I even think their campaign is a bit lame. Isn’t it a bit easy to say ‘A meter matters, so give cyclists a meter between your car and their bike’, and then for everyone to say ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Let’s try to do that’. How exactly will it be policed? It is currently illegal to ‘door’ someone (open a car door from a parked car into the path of a cyclist), however I don’t hear people coming into work saying “Sorry I’m late, I got charged with dooring and the paperwork took ages to fill out”. I never hear anyone talking about it. Ever.

My point is that markings on the road make infinite more difference than a theory. A physical sign that says to cars ‘ you can’t go here – this is not your driving space’ will have far more impact than a driver thinking ‘sheesh, I must remember to give this cyclist a meter because…well…it matters’.

One of the reasons cited for not putting more bike lane markings on roads is that the bike lane has to be a space wide enough to accommodate cyclists riding two abreast. Who on earth thought up that idea and why on earth does it continue? How often do cyclists (and remember, the focus of this blog is on the everyday cyclist) ride two abreast? If you’re commuting to work, school or university the answer is clearly virtually never.

There are plenty of examples where bike lanes have been made a lot skinnier to accommodate their location (over the Yarra bridge between Chapel and Church Streets for example, along with much of Nicholson street between Johnston and Victoria Streets in Richmond. Why can’t so many others (if not all others) have this as well?

So, back to Amy and their campaign. I know I’m being cynical. And this too is the point of this entry. I want infrastructure change to keep up with the progress and popularity of cycling and it simply isn’t. When I attended the Bike Futures conference last year, it was a theme that came up tirelessly – us cyclists have to be thankful for the miniscule, incremental changes that happen for our betterment so that we can then prove to drivers and politicians that the world didn’t end when they made these changes so they feel confident in making more changes. But goodness, it’s sometimes really painful to witness this glacial speed. I’m hoping that the Amy campaign is yet another step in making decision makers feel confident in making changes for the better for cyclists.

As it turns out, I contracted meningitis before my woodworking course ended so I never got to thank my teacher for his kind words or deeds (as he actually finished it for me). My wonderful father collected the hall stand, I lovingly oiled it and it now sits in my bedroom, proudly.

It reminds me of the importance of giving it a go. And – annoyingly – patience.