Two figures have been in my mind this week.
One was the £250m a year that the NHS would save if people took just one in 10 trips on a bicycle instead of a car.
The other is the £102.1m cost of the most expensive route for Congleton’s proposed by-pass. (We were supposed to call it a link road, but we’ve had enough of that. It’s a by-pass).
Clearly £250m is a big number, big enough for the story to appear in most of the national newspapers. The number’s an estimate of what the NHS would save if people were just a tiny bit fitter — exercise can fend off not just heart attacks but cancer and other nasty things.
And if £250m is a big number on a national scale (though small against the NHS’s total budget of £109bn) then £102m is massive when it’s being spent to by-pass a small town at the top of the English Midlands.
Thinking about it, it started to cross my mind that perhaps it’s a case of the solution being found first, and then the problems that need that solution being turned up afterwards.
A road is a big, long-term thing, and it’s a lot of money.
At this point it should be stressed that I used to live off West Road, on West End Cottages, until not so long ago. Never mind rush hour, the traffic is bad at 9am on a Sunday morning. It’s clear that Congleton needs a solution to its traffic problem and if, after looking at the alternatives, it’s got to be a by-pass, then fair enough.
It should also be stressed that Back Lane industrial estate equally clearly needs some relief, and, again, it may well be that only a by-pass will be the solution.
However, it seems that nothing else is being discussed, except by Eaton residents who keep raising the £10m traffic scheme that was apparently discussed at some point, that would just mean amending the current roads and not building a new one.
For example, I’m pretty sure I read a report some time ago that a lot of drivers heading for south Manchester leave the M6 to cut through Congleton, because the existing roads are too slow / busy / annoying / whatever.
Because there IS an existing road system to by-pass Congleton: it’s called the M6, the M56 and the A556, which presumably is meant to take traffic in and out of the south Manchester area.
Has anyone studied what percentage of traffic uses Congleton as a short cut? Maybe part of a less destructive — and cheaper — solution would be to either encourage that traffic to use the existing roads, or discourage it from using the A34 as a rat run.
Towns in Europe have slowed traffic down by planting trees at the sides of roads and building chicanes. Would making Congleton too annoying to drive through cause a reduction in traffic? (Admittedly, I can see the flaw there — Congleton is already really annoying to drive through but people still do it).
And what percentage of traffic in Congleton is local? People driving into the town centre or across town to see friends and family? Long before Mr Johnson had his Boris Bikes, the redoubtable Margaret Williamson suggested a fleet of bicycles (and tricycles for the less steady) for Congleton.
Park them in the town centre and at other spots, collect one as needed and cycle home. She even suggested supplying baskets for carrying and flags for visibility.
It might seem a bit wacky, but £100m would buy a fleet of bikes for everyone in Congleton, plus pay for all the cycle lanes, secure lock-ups and bike traffic lights, with change left over to widen Back Lane and support free parking for 50 years.
Once we’ve seen off the rat-runners by using chicanes and trees, and encouraged locals to cycle with free bikes, how much traffic would that leave? Does anyone know?
And in the print version of this article I failed to mention school traffic. Doh! Everyone knows that traffic is much less in school holidays. That’s partly because people go away, so it’s not schools closing that reduce traffic, it’s that people are not working, but even so: reduce/remove school traffic and how much need would there be for a by-pass?
As I say, I concede that a by-pass may be the ultimate answer — and Congleton has wanted one for a long time — but I don’t want the solution to suggest the problems. We should look at the problems, then think of solutions to fit.
Twenty years ago, a by-pass would have been a no-brainer but today, with our awareness of green energy, pollution, global warming, the cost of petrol, growing obesity and falling levels of fitness, surely we at least need to consider the alternatives.