OPINION: Holistic view of traffic issue needed
In the middle of November 2016, Northumberland County Council published a consultation survey to discover what the residents of Berwick would like to see happen in Bridge Street to enhance this last bastion of traditional shopping.
Since then, Berwick rumour mill has been grinding out all manner of stories. Not wishing to add to them, I would like to expand on my thoughts given in the survey and ask the bigger question, what do we do with transport issues in general in the town?
I am no expert, just an average user, but I believe the question still demands asking of ourselves and those at County Hall. My concern is that without a holistic view, tinkering at the periphery may have damaging results elsewhere.
The survey follows a Walking and Cycling Audit in 2014 by Sustrans. The main thrust of the survey is that ‘Bridge Street can seem a bit cut off from the rest of the town centre and concerns have been raised that it is sometimes overlooked by visitors to the town’. This is not in dispute. The survey makes interesting reading.
Apart from any cosmetic improvements, such as new paving, the suggestion is to pedestrianise at least part of the street from Bridge Street.
Some cynics have suggested that Northumberland County Council are not wanting to repair the Old Bridge to a standard fit for vehicular traffic, and that West Street will be for pedestrians only as Arch don’t want traffic thundering down the cobbles of West Street to disturb potential tenants of the new-look Cowes buildings whatever they will be, whenever they get finished.
One could no doubt improve matters in Bridge Street greatly by making it one way towards the bridge with parking/loading bays on one side but I believe this would be a disaster if undertaken in isolation.
Yet thinking about the idea of pedestrianisation does prompt the bigger question about traffic management within the town as a whole. We are used to the need to create new renewable power sources as fossil fuels will run out at some point. That is a truth that can be applied to traffic in Berwick! One looks at old photographs of Marygate on social media sites and sees the comments about the thriving shops and, ‘How nice it all looked without much traffic’.
National statistics show that the amount of traffic has increased since 1926 when many of these photos were taken (and incidentally, work on the New Bridge began) as being 160 vehicles an hour. It is now nearer 1,000 vehicles an hour. No surprise there, but since 1988 alone, there has been a 22 per cent increase in traffic.
The Sustrans report gives an interesting statistic: ‘The average annual daily flow on the street is between 12,400 and 14,800 vehicle per day. This is a considerable flow of traffic considering a population of just 13,265’.
Left to its own devices, there are no signs of the situation improving. Like the inevitability of fossil fuels running out, so the increase in traffic is set to rise to a point at which it will be nigh on impossible to drive through the town as we do (just about) today.
There have been calls for one-way systems to be introduced since the 1950s. The main problem is the pinch point at the top of Hide Hill. If it’s any consolation, people were complaining about getting horse drawn carts -round the corner in the 18th century. But I ask, in the 21st century, is it so beyond us that we cannot devise some combination of systems to alleviate this? Fundamentally, it seems to me, there are only two basic ways to improve the situation: Reduce the number of vehicles and improve the traffic flow in the town centre. Some ‘radical’ thoughts are set out below.
Some of the flow of traffic down Castlegate will not be destined for Berwick, but Tweedmouth and Spittal. I live in this area. If I see the traffic being heavy, I sometimes take the long way around via the bypass. Perhaps we need to encourage others from the northern reaches of Berwick to do this.
Introduce some sort of smart technology and congestion charge such that, rather like residents’ parking permits, only those who have a genuine need to have a car in this area are allowed to do so. I hate the idea of pricing people out of anything but, as with other things which are better for the overall public good, sometimes a financial disincentive is needed!
The introduction of pedestrianisation of Marygate and of a one-way system, perhaps using Ravensdowne and Silver Street as an alternative to Church Street and Hide Hill. The recent tinkering with the introduction of parking bays as opposed to loading bays was a nonsense. A badly-parked car on a badly-designed street layout is still a badly-parked car.
Encourage alternative transport. Berwick Town Council has been running the Hoppa bus service for a few years now but why is it not many people use it? Let’s encourage that as well as more cycling and walking. This would reduce the traffic so making alternatives more attractive and make us healthier. Removing traffic also has the benefit of reducing the amount of bad paving caused by inconsiderate parking, thus saving money.
Any future developments such as office blocks (Walkergate anyone?) should use areas such as the Ramparts Business Park. That removes vehicles from town that is just static eight hours of the day, be it in an on site car park or worse, occupying valuable public car parking spaces.
These have always been controversial ideas but there are many fallacies surrounding the issue. People often bemoan the lack of parking in Marygate, but think about the thriving shops in the old photographs! Lots of people and few cars. They were able to do their shopping without cars — why can’t we? Locating office workers outside the town, far from reducing trade, can create the opportunity for new service businesses.
I fear that concentrating on Bridge Street alone, while commendable in many ways, may worsen the situation.
Jim Herbert is standing as an Independent candidate for Berwick North in the county council elections.