You might have missed it but Hailey Park has been in the news again. The Western Mail/Wales Online ran an inflammatory story that seems to have been based on a comment left on a Facebook page.
The thrust of the story is that someone wants a speed limit for cyclists on the Taff Trail through Hailey Park. Let’s not go into the practicalities or otherwise of speed limits for cyclists or enforcement thereof, but think through what she is really concerned about rather than her proposed solution because frankly she does have a point – a very good one – but it’s not the speed limit one.
Jane (the lady concerned) is upset about people on bikes appearing to ride inconsiderately and too quickly near to people who are not on bikes (and dogs). She thinks this is alarming and potentially dangerous. This sort of story is not a one-off story either –there has been a steady stream of complaints and negative stories about cyclists in Hailey Park over the last few years. I can recall surveys of park users being done on this issue and codes of conduct being published (to little end that I feel).
Let’s pick apart the situation a bit then. Most people reading this know of the Taff Trail – it’s shared walking/cycling route that reaches from Cardiff Bay through the city centre up alongside the river Taff past Llandaff North and then Northwards through Tongwynlais ultimately heading to Brecon. It’s not a purpose-built route but a series of linked up stretches of pre-existing paths that are reasonably close to the river – and mostly free of motor traffic.
For many people who live in the communities close along the river it’s a pleasant stretch of riverside path they can amble along whilst looking for Kingfishers or walking the dog. It happens to run through Hailey Park, which for many people in Llandaff North (and Radyr/Danescourt/Gabalfa) Hailey Park is a destination in it’s own right. It’s a place where anyone can go to dawdle, to play, to chill, to hang out and to just “be” in, and why not – it is a very pleasant spot.
For those people who commute by bike between central Cardiff and Tongwynlais/Radyr/Taffs Well/Caerphilly, or even further – as far as the wilds of Pontypridd and beyond; it is the only realistic route into Cardiff that doesn’t involve tangling with large volumes of cars/lorries and buses. In last 10 years parts of the Taff Trail route have also been improved from a loose, gravel and mud surface into asphalt, which is great, as it now means that you are less likely to arrive in work filthy wearing a mudpack and riders who had to use slow heavy mountain bikes to ride over the loose surface can now use lighter, skinnier tyres and faster bikes making it a more attractive option for cycle commuters, subtly shifting the balance from being a fun “leisure” cycle route to a more serious “transport” cycle route.
At Hailey Park the Taff Trail comes in at the north end, joins the path near the river, and exits through the south end of the park at the underpass that runs under Llandaff Bridge. It always has been paved through this section as far as I can remember, but the path through the park is very narrow – I don’t know how narrow exactly – but a few times this year I have met a lady cycling her kids to playgroup in a Babboe three-wheel cargo bike. Here the path is barely wide enough for it to fit onto, and I’ve stopped to let her pass. This narrow section means that whether you like it or not you are going to be closer to other trail users here than elsewhere…whether those users are on wheels, 2 legs or 4 legs.
Two other things stand out about this section of path – it is steeply cambered in places with a hard lip at the edge of the path. To a cyclist this is a potential hazard and forces many riders to ride towards middle of path. Also and perhaps more obviously there are long stretches where vegetation/nettles and overhanging branches encroach onto the path. Both of these factors constrict the effective width of an already too narrow path even further, pushing riders, dogs, walkers closer together. If you are closer to someone and moving then they will perceive your speed as rather greater than if you are further away from them and travelling at the same speed. The proximity and perception of greater speed feels more threatening.
In Hailey Park then we have two issues – different user groups who want very different things – one peace/quiet and a pleasant stroll along the river and another group who want to get where they are going quickly. These different groups with markedly different aspirations are then forced into a space which looks too narrow and is too narrow. Think of that supermarket aisle on Saturday morning where some people are pleasantly browsing at all the interesting things on the shelves, wondering what they would like to buy for lunch, while some people know exactly what they want and where it is, and want to get home quick to put the washing out and nip down the pub. Then reduce that aisle width somewhat, swap the trolleys for bikes and pushchairs and add some potholes, nettles, overhanging branches and excited dogs. Then you’ll have Hailey Park.
What can be done about it?
Well firstly Cardiff Council’s draft Active Travel Plan earmarked the Taff Trail including the Hailey Park stretch as one (and only?) of it’s Active Travel Cycle routes. In my opinion it doesn’t meet the standards that are outlined in the Active Travel Guidance, but it does suggest that Cardiff Council expect that numbers of people riding bikes along that route will increase over the coming years. To me this means the problem of conflict here isn’t going to go away – but it will likely increase.
Interestingly – a little further south along the trail between the Western Avenue underpass and Blackweir there are more users, both on foot and on two wheels. The path is much wider here and in places the effective width is probably at least twice as wide as the section through Hailey Park. Many of the cyclists are the same ones who came through Hailey Park, their speed and personality are unlikely to have changed much, but on this wider stretch of path they aren’t as close to people walking – everyone has more space, things are less stressed.
Many of the people walking here have different aims to the people walking in Hailey Park too, a much greater proportion of people walking here for transport reasons either to Cardiff Met from the Halls of Residence, or to their place of work in the city centre, rather than pleasantly ambling along taking in the morning air. So – the same cyclists, but a better path design and different group of walkers but less conflict.
Ultimately the Taff Trail through Hailey Park is going to have to be addressed either by widening the path greatly (3m width is a number I remember from some old Sustrans guidance) so as to allow child-carrying cargo bikes and trailers to pass one another with ease, and allow parents to ride and walk alongside their children without getting in the way of oncoming users.
You’d still have designed-in conflict as a result of the mixing of transport and leisure functions, but perhaps the extra space would lessen the conflict somewhat – it’s notable that the paths in Bute Park are much wider than through Hailey Park, as regular user of both I perceive less of a problem in Bute Park. A better alternative would be to reroute the through cycle traffic completely – either elsewhere through the Hailey Park, avoiding the riverside path – or perhaps better still avoiding the park completely – using protected cycle lanes through Llandaff North along Station Road, linking up the railway station, the shops and Ysgol Glantaff.
In general the shared cycle/walking paths are a flawed compromise – in many cases they are inadequately specified and poorly maintained and just end up stoking conflict between different users. You can tell they have failed when the people who use them are being exhorted to “do this” or “do that”. You have to design facilities for human beings and all their failings, not build a facility and then try to change the behaviour of every human who uses it…that way madness lies. The Taff Trail is a good example of something that was a lightly cycled “leisure” route that has become a well used “transport” route. That usage will continue to grow and become more important too if the city isn’t to grind to a halt in semi-permanent autogeddon.
However the consequences for other users of the path in that switch in use between “leisure” and “transport” have to be recognised. There are of course many other parts of the Taff Trail that are poor quality, badly thought out and poorly maintained, but Hailey Park is probably the most acute problem spot.
Hopefully the Active Travel Act guidance will mean narrow poorly thought through “shared” paths such as this become a lot less likely in the future, and different user groups needs and functions will be recognised and catered for at the design stage, however I’m not hopeful that these lessons are being recognised and learnt by the people responsible for constructing these things.
A few days ago @sustranscymru were proudly proclaiming a brand new shiny, but all too narrow and partially overgrown stretch of shared cycle/walking path they had just opened in West Wales. Closer to home at the new Radyr Weir turbine house the design of the site is such that the picnic area is now on the opposite side of the Taff Trail to the river meaning that leisure facilities are split by a transport artery – a bit like putting a play park the opposite side of a road to the toilets. I wonder how long before Western Mail will be printing a “Speed limit for cyclists at Radyr Weir” story.