Happy 2019!

Happy 2019!

Happy New Year, lets hope for great things in 2019. Although the out looking is bleak we have to hope for the best.

For me it will be another busy year with the seventh Edinburgh Festival of Cycling to organise, but I hope to get back to doing more blogging, so watch this space…

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How to undermine a Bill with loopholes

How to undermine a Bill with loopholes

Following on from my last blog post, I decided to take a look at the “Pavement Parking Standard Response” from the Tory MSPs and this is what I found. It is clear example of Orwellian double speak, their proposed amendments are not intended to “to strengthen the Bill” but rather to introduce loopholes to undermine the clauses on pavement parking.

Thank you for your email,

The Transport Bill offers a chance to examine and possibly change legislation surrounding pavement parking, as well as low emission zones and bus franchising to name some of the other issues it may address.

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the Transport Bill in principle but we will likely aim to lodge amendments to strengthen the Bill at Stages Two and Three to ensure it is a robust and sound piece of law.

Frequent parking on footways can cause damage that eventually manifests as uneven pavements. Such damage can represent a real danger to pedestrians, especially vulnerable ones, with local authorities having to foot the bill for repairs.

We can all agree that inconsiderate parking must be tackled and I am pleased that there are plans to look at it. A blanket ban on pavements must be properly researched and proportionate. Inconsiderate parking should not be tolerated, but there are many instances when parking partly on a pavement is the only available option and can be done without obstructing pedestrians’ access.

As you will be aware there may be instances in which parking with two wheels on a pavement has left sufficient room for pedestrians to pass while allowing traffic to flow freely on the road. That is a key point because it would obviously be counterproductive to impose a ban only for it to result in constant road blockages. As long as such parking can be done in a way that allows more than enough room for all pedestrians to pass freely, it is not always necessary to impose a blanket ban. I am not convinced that a blanket ban with no room for exemptions by local authorities in places might be too much of a catch all approach, I know of many areas where pavement parking is the only option to allow free passage of vehicles, including emergency vehicles, through narrow streets – in those examples perhaps local authorities may need to approach this pragmatically. Blanket centralisation of such individual circumstances in my view has historically caused unintended consequences.

The compromise that we would like to emerge would be to find a balance between protecting vulnerable pedestrians and allowing harmless pavement parking to continue. I suspect our amendments will be of this ilk.

I can understand the temptation to push through a blanket ban because it is right to say that we should not tolerate forcing vulnerable pedestrians to move around parked cars on pavements or dropped footways. However, we would not be serving the public if we simply imposed a blanket ban and left motorists, as well as law enforcement officers, to clear up the mess.

I hope you find the above position helpful and I thank you for contacting me regarding this important subject.

They start by acknowledging that “Frequent parking on footways can cause damage that eventually manifests as uneven pavements. Such damage can represent a real danger to pedestrians, especially vulnerable ones, with local authorities having to foot the bill for repairs”. Yes, that is why the Bill proposes to completely ban parking on the footway. However, they suggest that “parking partly on a pavement is the only available option”, not true, there is always the option to park considerately elsewhere and walk to your final destination, that is what footways are there for. We all have the right to walk, but there is no “right” to drive, this is a privileged form of mobility undertaken under licence.

Then we get on to the suggestion that “parking with two wheels on a pavement” should be acceptable, this directly contradicts acknowledgement that parking on the pavement is damaging for a wide range of reasons. The frequency of this parking behaviour is a red herring, they already suggest pavement parking is harmful and then proceed to contradict themselves. The next red herring is “pavement parking is the only option to allow free passage of vehicles”- if the road is too narrow to allow parking on the roadway, then yes, it is indeed too narrow for parking – so why should motorists expect to be allowed to encroach into areas specifically set aside for pedestrians? It is neither fair nor reasonable. Just remember that we all have the right to walk but there is no right to drive. By saying that pavement parking should be permitted, this is saying the motorist should in all cases have priority over pedestrians. This is in no way about “compromise” or “balance”, it is about prioritising motorists over “vulnerable pedestrians” who are currently forced “to move around motor vehicles parked on pavements or dropped footways” by inconsiderate and selfish parking.

Finally we are told that a blanket ban will leave “motorists, as well as law enforcement officers, to clear up the mess”, how so? If there is a blanket ban on pavement parking the law, is then clear and unambiguous, there should be no mess to clear up. By introducing exemptions for so called “harmless pavement parking” it deliberately introduces ambiguity, which then creates a mess for enforcement officers to clear up, along with time-wasting court action while loophole lawyers argue over the level of harm caused.

For the good of all, these loopholes must be blocked before the Bill is passed. Only by having a blanket on all pavement parking will the law be clear and unambiguous.

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Call for a pavement parking ban in Scotland

Call for a pavement parking ban in Scotland

The Transport (Scotland) Bill is currently making it way through the Scottish Parliament, among its provisions are clauses which aim to ban pavement parking in Scotland, which is long overdue. However, there are a few loopholes which need closing. Therefore as a responsible citizen, I decided to write to my MSP’s asking the consider helping to close these loopholes as the Bill makes it way through Holyrood. Here is the letter which I sent to my elected representatives:

I am writing to you in the hope that you will act to close the loopholes regarding pavement parking in the current Transport (Scotland) Bill. Without closing these loopholes the legislation will fail to provide the full benefit to all of the people living in Scotland.

There are currently exceptions for all “delivery vehicles”, allowing vans and lorries to park on pavements for “up to 20 minutes”. This is a total nonsense, there is no need for delivery vehicles to park on footways or cycleways. Rather, there is a need to rethink how last mile deliveries are carried out and to seek smarter, more sustainable solutions. The current practice of allowing vehicles to park on the pavement not only causes great inconvenience to pedestrians, it also places a cost burden hard-pressed local authorities who have to pay for the damage caused by pavement parking.

The bill also needs to more clearly define what a pavement obstruction is so that enforcement is straightforward and easy for local authorities. A clear definition will also make it easier for drivers to know what they are expected to comply with. There should be no ambiguity on what constitutes obstruction such as the time limit nonsense referred to above.

The other thing that is lacking from the bill is the banning of parking which obstructs dropped kerbs, this omission needs to be corrected. Not only are dropped kerbs important to wheelchair users, people with mobility scooters and parents with pushchairs, they are important for those carrying deliveries too. Here again, there needs to be a clear definition of what constitutes obstruction dropped kerbs so that everyone knows what is expected of them.

The Transport (Scotland) Bill has the potential to improve safety on our roads and the quality of life for all, if these loopholes are closed. Please don’t miss the opportunity to improve this Bill.

Thanks,

Kim

Mr Kim Harding, BSc, MPhil

I will add in replies as I get them.

The first three replies I received where automated responses, one was an “out of office” message saying that the MSP was on holiday and would get back to me on his return. The other two came from Miles Briggs (Conservative) and Jeremy Balfour (Conservative), both replies were almost identical which suggest that this is a standard party approach to dealing with any correspondence from constituents.

Thank you for contacting me.

Priority is given to helping constituents with individual concerns or problems.

If your email relates to a nationally organised campaign on a current political issue where you have been asked to “Write to your MSP” you are likely to find a response on my website at: [MSP’s website]

While I always welcome personal comments from constituents I am afraid that I have reached the conclusion that it is no longer possible for my staff to process individually the many thousands of identical or computer-generated `round-robins` I receive every month. If you live in Lothian you may wish to come along to one of my regular advice `surgeries` when I will be pleased to discuss your own concerns with you in person. These are advertised in the local media and on my website.

Kind regards,

With these automated replies, these MSPs are effectively holding up two fingers to their constituents and show their contempt for those they are elected to represent. To be clear these auto-replies are not to an automated campaign, they are to all email correspondence sent MSPs representing the Conservative party. We live in a “representative democracy” when a person takes the time to write a personal message to their elected representative, it is the responsibility of the elected person to read and respond to the message, otherwise what is the point of electing these people. The fact that the issue which I am raising is a matter of concern to a number of other people, who have also made the effort to contact their elected representative, is totally irrelevant.

Having received the automated replies Tories, I checked out their standard reply on the Pavement Parking clauses in the Transport (Scotland) Bill, only to find that they are deliberately trying to insert the loopholes into the Bill.

The first genuine reply can from Kezia Dugdale (Labour), on behalf of a college who was on holiday, saying that their party position was to fully support the Bill:

Thank you for your email regarding the parking provisions within the Transport (Scotland) Bill.

Scottish Labour very much supports a ban on pavement parking. As your email highlights, pavement parking can cause serious problems for those with mobility issues, as well as those with prams, and we should take action to prevent it as far as possible.

The Transport Bill as it is drafted does provide a number of specific exemptions and gives local authorities the ability to exempt certain roads from a ban. These exemptions provide an element of flexibility and will help to protect against potential problems such as unnecessarily restricting access on certain roads for emergency vehicles. There are also specific exemptions built into the bill for certain vehicles, for example an ambulance attending an emergency. However, as your email notes, there is a risk that exemptions may create loopholes and undermine the effectiveness of the ban, so it is important that they are kept to a minimum.

In the coming months the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) Committee will be scrutinising the Transport Bill. This is an opportunity to look closely at potential problems and loopholes, such as the ones outlined in your email. In the REC Committee Scottish Labour’s Transport Spokesperson Colin Smyth will be working to strengthen the Bill and address concerns about its effectiveness.

The REC Committee are currently collecting evidence on this Bill. If you wish to submit your views, information on how to do so is available here. [No information provided]

In the meantime, thank you again for your email, and please don’t hesitate to get back in touch if I can be of any assistance to you in the future.

Kind regards

Kezia

I can understand the point of exempting emergency vehicles attending an emergency call, but where is the point exempt whole roads from a ban? If the road is too narrow to permit parking on the roadway, it is too narrow to permit parking other than in a emergency situation. Providing any other form of exemption will only lead to abuse.

Update 12th Sept 2018
This is Alison Johnstone (Green) reply:

Many thanks for writing to me about the Transport Bill, and efforts to restrict pavement parking. I am responding also on behalf of my Green MSP colleague, Andy Wightman.

I agree that parking on pavements should be an enforceable offence. Even partially parking vehicles on the pavement can reduce the amount of space that is available for people to pass by and can completely obstruct the footway. No one should be forced onto the road, especially our most vulnerable street users, including older people, children, parents with buggies, wheelchair users and those with reduced mobility.

I understand concerns that the current exemption for delivery vehicles in the draft Bill could undermine efforts to deliver accessible streets for all. Scottish Green Transport spokesperson John Finnie MSP is seeking more information about these exemptions and how we can legislate to best deliver safe pavements for the most vulnerable in our society.

As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, John will vigorously test the Scottish Government’s proposals when they are discussed at Committee in the coming weeks.

Best wishes,

Alison

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And finally, the 1st bat of the year

And finally, the 1st bat of the year

This year spring has been a long time coming, but finally we have spotted the first bat of 2018!

It was probably Pipistrellus pipistrellus or Pipistrellus pygmaeus (based on previous identifications). It is way later than last year, which was on the 5th April, and other have been even earlier, 26th March 2012 and 30th March 2009.

It is great to have such opportunities to see wild life, such as bats, in the centre of a city which one of the reasons I do so enjoy living in Edinburgh.

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From Montecatini to the Marsh Land of Fucecchio (MTB tour day two)

From Montecatini to the Marsh Land of Fucecchio (MTB tour day two)

For the second day of our MTB tour (day one here) we were heading out from Montecatini into the Marsh Land of Fucecchio or the Padule di Fucecchio, known since ancient times as “an insalubrious and dangerous area”. These days the Fucecchio Marshes cover an area of about 1,800 hectares, however these ancient lake-marshes were considerably larger in the past and once covered most of the southern Valdinievole. In 217 BC, Hannibal took four days and three nights to cross these marshes, loosing along the way most of his elephants (well the ones that had survived crossing the Alps), a large chunk of his army and an eye (due to an infection). Or at least that is the story Livy tells us in his History of Rome.

By the Middle Ages there was increasing interest in draining the marshes, with the great Leonardo da Vinci studying their hydrology and the Medici and Lorena families putting up the money and then taking the profits from the system of grand-ducal farms which were created. However, even after all the changes over the last few centuries, the charm of these wetlands remains intact today. The traditional way to get about the Padule was by barchino (a form of punt) or navicello (a flat-bottomed sailboat). These days, as a result of the drainage, the marshes are criss-crossed with strade bianche (gravel roads), and so the mountain bikes make an ideal way to see some of the area in a shorter time than it took Hannibal.

Our day started by threading our way out of Montecatini Terme (where we were staying at the Hotel Arnolfo) through the rush hour traffic. Once again I was surprised by the patience and tolerance of Italian drivers, only once on a roundabout did we get tooted at by a driver who also made a rude gesture which I had only previously seen on TV Inspector Montalbano on BBC 4.

Leaving the town behind, we were guided along the bank of a canalised river, which I had expected to lead us into the Padule proper, but to my surprise we then turned back on to the road again. Taking a right turn into what at first looked like a side road, there was a barrier to keep out motor vehicles and a ribbon of super-smooth tarmac appeared beyond. Once we rode onto it, we realised that this was a bike racing circuit. Riding round, our mountain bikes felt a little like riding Hannibal’s elephants especially when overtaken by a light cavalry charge of kids from a local cycling club on road bikes.

Road circuit

Riders on the road circuit

Realising that I am getting too old to lead the chase, I sat up and decided to ride the rest of the circuit hands free, which was great fun, especial on the hairpin bends. Play time over, it was back to the strade bianche and exploring the marshes, which are rich with wild life. Today the Padule are a strange mix of reed beds, maize and tobacco crops, and plantations of poplar and alder trees. Our local bike guide, Massimo, told us how during the winter these plantations would flood and how he liked to to kayaking between the trees.

Trees in the Marsh Land of Fucecchio

The area is popular with both bird watchers and hunters, it is not uncommon to see spent shotgun cartilages lining the side of the tracks. Of the 1,800 hectares of the Padule di Fucecchio only about 230 hectares are protected nature reserve, and the first people we were to meet were a couple of hunters and a wildlife photographer at Casin del Lillo. The hunters were very hospitable and had set up a gazebo with a table of refreshments for us. Well it was the right time for a mid morning snack, and just the three bottles of wine. Casin del Lillo is one of the many “ports” of the Padule, where the hunters set out on their barchino to stalk game, or just take tourists on sightseeing trips. We were taken out in groups of four for a short taster ride in a barchino, while the others tasted the local specialities which had been laid on for us.

Refreshments at Casin del Lillo

Barchino taster ride

Seeing the drainage canals close up, you really get an idea of the level of eutrophication from the local agriculture. This isn’t the only environmental problem the Padule suffer from. There are also invasive species such as the red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) which are undermining the dykes which contain the drainage ditches. Now you might think that the solution to the crayfish problem would be to trap and eat them, but this would be ill advised as the crayfish are subject to heavy uptake of lead from the lead shot used by the hunters. Not that we let any of this spoil out visit, of course.

The next stop on our itinerary was a nature reserve, established by the Provincial Administration of Pistoia (207 hectares) and Florence (25 hectares). The area we were to visit is the oldest protected area in the marshes, which is managed by the Centro di Ricerca, Documentazione e Promozione del Padule di Fucecchio (the Centre for Research, Documentation and Promotion of the Fucecchio Marshes).

Along the way I had been hearing the calls of a bird of prey which I hadn’t manage to spot and wasn’t sure what it was. So I was pleased when our guide from the research centre pointed to a couple of birds zooming overhead and told us that they were a family of Lodolaio with the adults teaching the young how to hunt. There was just one problem, what were Lodolaio? He dug out his field guide to show us a picture and gave us the scientific name Falco subbuteo, now at one time this would have meant people looking at the picture to find out what they were, but not now. There was a flurry of phones pulled from pockets, a quick Google search, and we knew that they were called Lodolaio in Italian, Hobby in English, Baumfalke in German, and Boomvalk in Flemish.

We were then taken to a bird watchign hide overlooking part of the restored marsh. There were a wide range of water fowl to be seen, but the highlight for all of us was a Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia, or Spatola, Löffler, or Lepelaar, as you please). I was cursing not having brought my camera with the big lens, having left in the car with the film crew who had been following us around. Then I noticed that Ulli was trying to take a photo through the eye piece of the spotting scope which our guide had brought, so I decided to try the same with my phone camera. The (cropped) image below is the result of a OnePlus 3T phone camera taken via a Swarovski lens, which I am rather pleased with.

photo of Spoonbill

The nature break over, we headed off for lunch, according to the itinerary this was to be a light lunch. At one point I stopped to take a photo, as nothing quite says “cycle touring in Tuscany” as well as a picture of a far off hilltop village and the sight of your companions dispersing into the distance at the prospect of a “light lunch”. The chosen place for lunch was the Grotta Giusti Spa, and let’s just say the food was not the highlight of this stop.

The highlight of our visit was the thermal caves, apparently the largest in Europe, where you can “enjoy the detoxifying steam”. These caves have had an illustrious stream of visitor over the years: Giuseppe Verdi called them the eighth wonder of the world, Garibaldi came and had his photo taken. However, sadly, there is no record of Hannibal (or his elephants) ever having visited. The caves are divided into three distinct areas called Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. The other curiosity of these caves is that the stalactites have a strangely cauliflorous appearance with bobbles all over their surfaces.

Grotta Giusti

Before entering the caves you have to put on special robes, which make the wearers look rather like Benedictine monks as they shuffle into the caves. When reaching the area known as Purgatory, the path divides into two, with most people turning left and going straight to Hell. It turns out that Hell is a broad low ceilinged cavern with people sitting around in deckchairs, in 36°C heat with near 100% humidity. No wailing and gnashing of teeth here, just signs saying “Il silenzio aiuta il relax, Silence helps relaxation”. On leaving Hell, after a restful doze, I decided to pass through Purgatory and visit Heaven, which turned out to be a smaller cavern with a small pool of water. The temperature in this section is a constant 28°C, which did feel blissfully cool after a period in Hell, although the place was strangely empty. It was not somewhere people seemed to linger, unlike Inferno.

After leaving the caves and returning to the surface, we spent some time hanging out at the spa’s outdoor swimming pool before heading off on the bikes once more. The final stop on our itinerary was the Terme Tettuccio spa at the heart of Montecatini town. Getting there did require riding through the heavily congested traffic, which makes me wonder why they don’t put in some proper cycle infrastructure and reduce the level of congestion? After all if places like Ferrara and Bolzano can do it, why not in towns in Tuscany? Hey, even Milan manages better than this.

Thankfully, as I have said before, Italians seem to be very tolerant of cyclists and we did finally make it to the Terme Tettuccio, a place which in many ways defines the town. The thermal springs were a site for votive offerings in Roman time, although the Romans were noted for making such offerings at water courses generally. The first written evidence of the use of thermal baths dates back to 1201 AD when a merchant from Prato, Francesco Datini, wrote to his doctor to ask about the waters. However, the spa really took off around 1400 AD when another doctor, Ugolino Simoni da Montecatini, wrote a treatise on the therapeutic use of the waters by the local peasants.

The spa as we know it today is as a result of work started by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorena, who initiated the construction of the Bagno Regio (1773), Leopoldine Baths (1779) and Tattoo (1779), which form the core of the modern Spa town. The current Art Nouveau buildings date from 1928 when water from four thermal springs were all piped into one place for the serious purpose of parting the rich worried well from their money.

The four springs that feed the spa are given different names: Leopoldina, Regina, Tettuccio and Refreshment. Each contains a range of mineral salts which give them a characteristic salty flavour, all the waters are diuretic, but have no fear of being caught short: there are 1000 toilets arranged over two floors, ground floor for the Ladies and first floor for the Gentlemen. I kid you not! However, to give Terme Tettuccio its due, the place is stunning, the floors, the walls, the ceilings, just art everywhere.

Terme di Montecatini

Taps and frescos

Escher floor

Building at Terme Tettuccio

But where’s the cycling angle? I hear you ask. Well, apparently the great Eddy Merckx tried the waters here, before winning the Giro d’Italia five times. I think that is good enough.

 


Thanks to the lovely people at Italia Slow Tour for organising this trip and to our local bike guides Massimo and Graziano of Bike Experience Tuscany for showing us around. If you would like to follow our route it is here:

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