Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why bash the bishop over Occupy Exeter?

There's been a good-natured occupation of Exeter's Cathedral Green by the Occupy movement. Here's a video of them moving in, accompanied by a friendly and constructive speech by one of the clergy:

Photos and another video are at the Exeter anti-cuts alliance website.

Now I'm conflicted about the Occupy movement. This is not what democracy looks like to me.  I don't want decisions about the future of my city, country and planet to be taken by those groups who shout angriest and loudest that they speak for everyone. And I'm angry that many people have failed to engage in our democratic processes in the past. However, the movement has its heart in the right place when it attacks corporate greed and inequality, it has captured imaginations, and it has real potential to help more people engage constructively in these issues.

But I note the spin by The Telegraph and others on comments made by the Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish. He has said plainly that he is very sympathetic to the questions raised by Occupy Exeter folks. He echoes the warmth of the cleric in the above video. The bishop also notes the protest appears misdirected at the church. This is positive. A key message that Occupy Exeter is trying to get out there is that this isn't about the church, but about the failure of our financial sector. The bishop is a thoughtful figure to be engaged with, not the enemy.

Yet The Telegraph portrays him as "dismissing 'copycat' protests", and praises his "robust stance". The BBC emphasizes the bishop's concern that this looks like a protest against the church, rather than his friendliness to the cause.

However, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, of Exeter University's Theology department, seems to have taken this spin at face value. She has tweeted:
"Bishop of Exeter against #occupyexeter: 'Each day we will remind protesters that this is sacred space'. Jesus would probab be ashamed of him"
The bishop is clear he would rather there weren't protesters on Cathedral Green, but he and his clergy have gone out of their way to engage with Occupy folk, to offer practical help, and to highlight how the church shares a similar mission. To say the bishop is "against" Occupy Exeter is therefore simplistic and misrepresents his views.

More importantly, it is divisive to portray the bishop as an enemy. Claiming that Jesus would be ashamed of him is an unhelpful insult. The bishop's status means that his sympathy with the issues being raised could carry some weight with many people who have so far been left cold by the Occupy movement. Let's build support, not barricades.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

When councillors get fixated on "progress"

John Lewis is coming to Exeter. That's terrific news. Everyone's delighted. Great success. Congratulations all round.

Unfortunately, officers and councillors of the County Council and the City Council are planning a weird scheme (pdf document) to make the road outside John Lewis one-way. It's at the point where New North Road joins Paris Street, an area known (apparently) as London Inn Square.
The proposal is to remove the route marked with a red line

What's so weird about that, you might ask. After all, the road has 22,000 pedestrians crossing it daily. It "acts as a physical barrier between the main shopping area and Sidwell Street", and "Sidwell St / Paris St has seen 20 collisions in a 3 year period (14 involving pedestrians)". Moreover, "People should be able to enjoy their surroundings without concerns about crossing busy roads, or being subjected to poor air quality caused by cars and lorries which need not be in the middle of the city." (All quotes from the scheme flyer linked above.)

Yes, fine. It would be better for cars not to be cutting through the shopping area at all. But the big question is: Where will the traffic go then?

What the proposed scheme mostly doesn't fix

Before I come to the question of where the traffic will go instead, I want to look at that "20 collisions in a 3 year period" statistic. It's potentially very misleading. There's no indication whether this refers just to the immediate area affected by the proposed scheme or to the whole of Sidwell Street and Paris Street.

And this ambiguity matters: the plethora of signs and road markings at the top of Paris Street and the intersection between Sidwell Street and Cheeke Street are dreadful, with different rules for cars, buses, taxis and bicycles.

Paris Street will be unchanged
So, for example, Paris Street is one-way for cars, but two-way for bicycles. Drivers who want to go straight on have to cut in front of buses leaving a bus stop at a pedestrian crossing; a crossing that also has 3 sets of traffic lights, two with a "straight on" filter (so the red lights confusingly only apply to the right-hand turn); and at just at that spot when cars are having to uncomfortably squeeze in front of the buses (and take in all the lights and road markings), a bike box, some bike racks, and a route sign suddenly become visible (they're likely to be obscured by a bus before that point). The route sign, by the way, tells you nothing about what happens if you turn right, but lots about what's straight on (Crediton, Tiverton, railway stations and the University) and if it wasn't visible until you're at the lights, you're also likely to be in the wrong lane for going straight on, so you'll somehow have to break lane discipline, while taking account of pedestrians, cyclists, buses and other vehicles all doing different things. Meanwhile the cycle lanes come and go.

Paris Street was two-way not so long ago, and it was all much less confusing. There was also a central island for pedestrians in New North Road, which the council removed.

Incidentally, having a taxi rank right next to this confusing semi-one-way intersection is also daft.

Meanwhile, inadequate signs at Cheeke Street mean that cars sometimes go the wrong way up Sidwell Street, a route on which only buses and taxis are allowed. In fact there are two cars in Google Streetview doing precisely that. They end up having to turn right out of Sidwell Street into New North Road. I once saw a small boy almost mown down crossing New North Road when the pedestrian light was green. It's possible the driver had gone through a red light, but I think it's more plausible that the lights in Sidwell Street assumed that buses would be going straight on into the High Street, rather than turning right.
As I say, the proposed scheme mostly wouldn't fix these threats to safety, although, to be fair, the layout of the taxi rank would be improved, and most traffic would be removed from Sidwell Street between the High Street and Cheeke Street.

Where will the traffic go?
Current route in red (New North Road, Sidwell St, Cheeke St)
Encouraged route in blue (Bonhay Road, Western Way)
At peak times, 300 cars an hour travel along the route to be closed. So what will happen to this traffic?

Firstly, the councils say that they will "encourage drivers crossing the city to use more appropriate roads such as Bonhay Road and Western Way".

I can imagine that suiting people driving from the areas around Crediton, Tiverton and Exeter St David's station, although the perennial bottleneck that is Exe Bridges might be a reason why they are not using Bonhay Road currently. People driving from the areas around Exeter College and the University might take more persuasion.

My guess is, though (and it'd be nice if the councils published their research so that we can be working with actual data rather than guesses), that most of the traffic going east via New North Road
originates far from easy access to Bonhay Road or Western Way. They will be heading to places like the hospital, the business parks, industrial estates, edge-of-city retail parks and the M5. A route via Bonhay Road and Western Way is going to seem a big diversion. Moreover, buses from the Cowley Bridge direction (the north-west of the city) will still need to get to the bus station, just off Paris Street.

In fact the councils estimate that "half of the existing traffic turning left into Sidwell Street is expected to divert onto Blackall Road and York Road".

Current route in red (New North Road, Sidwell St, Cheeke St)
Likely alternative in blue (Blackall Rd, Pennsylvania Rd, York Rd, Summerland St)

Note the bus station is off Bramfylde Street, hence all the bus stops there

This alternative route is unarguably residential, with four zebra crossings, two mini roundabouts, and several severe speed bumps. St James is a conservation area, but this seems to count for nothing.
Blackall Road is residential
Mini roundabout and zebra crossing in Blackall Road

The alternative route also features a left-hand turn from Pennsylvania Road into York Road that often results in long waits by cars coming out of York Road and by cars turning into York Road from the other direction. And at the top end of York Road, there are often jams by the traffic lights. This is not a route that can sustain much more traffic. Yet it is estimated that 150 an hour additional vehicles would be travelling along these roads if this scheme is approved.
The junction of Pennsylvania Road, York Road
and Longbrook Street
The junction of York Road, Sidwell Street
 and Summerland Street

This route also goes directly past the gates of the local primary school.

It's at this point that the councils need to be reminded of their own stern warning:
"People should be able to enjoy their surroundings without concerns about crossing busy roads, or being subjected to poor air quality caused by cars and lorries which need not be in the middle of the city."

The councils trumpet the importance of making it easier for people to cross the road and of minimising air pollution, but somehow this doesn't apply to the children at the school.

Another likely alternative route is via Longbrook Street and then (again) up York Road. This is again a largely residential street.
Longbrook Street
So what are our councillors doing?

The ward that will suffer from the proposed scheme is St James. St James has two Liberal Democrat city councillors (Natalie Cole and Kevin Mitchell). The City Council is in minority Labour control. Labour is strongly targeting this ward. The election is in May 2012.

But it would be too simplistic to suggest that it's just a case of Labour hoping St James residents will punish sitting city councillors for failing to stop this scheme. St James also has a Liberal Democrat county councillor (Philip Brock) and the County Council is held by the Conservatives. Moreover, an improved area around John Lewis could be trumpeted as a Conservative success by a Conservative challenger to the sitting Labour MP.

Meanwhile, the three councillors for St James (Cole, Mitchell and Brock) support a further alternative proposal that sends traffic down Longbrook Street and then right along King William Street. This alternative avoids the majority of the residential areas and the school, but still sends traffic along quiet streets, and also past the front door of a community centre.

The Labour candidate for the forthcoming city elections (Keith Owen) notes the concerns of residents, expressed forcefully at a meeting last month when council officers explained the scheme. Yet he is careful not to indicate his opposition to the scheme. [But see the update below] When it comes to planning matters, Labour councillors in Exeter tend to vote en bloc, often in favour of development, rather than each individual making up his or her own mind on the merits of the particular case.

None of these councillors seems to be arguing the merits of the status quo, on the basis of the scheme's damage to the quality of life of St James residents. [Again, see the update below]

Many Exeter people want Paris Street made two-way again
It also seems that none of the councillors is arguing that the decision to make Paris Street one-way was a huge mistake, and should be reversed. Rather than travelling a few hundred yards to get to the bus station, bus passengers were sent a long way round, clogging up Sidwell Street. The new proposal sends bus passengers on an even bigger diversion, via narrow residential streets. Taxi drivers are also unhappy with the current situation. Moreover, Sidwell Street is clearly currently more dangerous for pedestrians and road users than it was when Paris Street was two-way. It would be good to know how the figure of 7 collisions a year compares with the rate before Paris Street was made one-way.

Over the past decade there have been large numbers of changes to the road layout in the area of the new John Lewis. And yet somehow it is still worth spending up to £2m on yet another scheme, at a time when the County Council is implementing cuts of £40m, on top of £55m last year. It has been claimed that John Lewis would not come to Exeter if Paris Street were to be made two-way again. Well John Lewis is coming. Has a commitment been made on Paris Street?

In Exeter, the quality of decision-making when it comes to planning decisions is very poor. Just read the minutes of planning meetings, or go along to one. Attendance is variable; details are glossed over; reasoning is typically nebulous or tautologous; officers' opinions are often accepted uncritically; "progress" is automatically seen to be a good thing, even if it isn't actually progress.

Parties can afford to make these kinds of cavalier decisions, because it is just one ward out of many. But the real question is how councillors get fixated on a particular idea as representing "progress". Is it that they get jazzed up by grandiose words in "vision" documents? Or a desire to leave their mark on the city? Do they somehow talk themselves into corners through macho posturing? Or are they somehow intimidated by developers, officials, lawyers, or business imperatives?

I don't know. I doubt it's any of these reasons; and it's rather than councillors simply believe that this is the best way forward. But in that case, rising above the issue of whether this proposed scheme is sensible or not, is a bigger concern: I resent the fact that councillors and would-be councillors treat residents disrespectfully by failing to provide well-reasoned arguments for their decisions.

So come on councillors and would-be councillors, whatever ward or electoral division you represent. Your decision on this issue is affecting my community. You owe us an account of your personal decision.

Update 3 Dec 2011

I'm pleased to note from this week's Express and Echo that at least some councillors are giving the proposal careful consideration.

Jill Owen, county councillor (Labour) for Priory and St Leonard's, comments on the displacement of traffic from Sidwell Street:
"I don't think the displacement issue has been made clear enough to everyone and I hope that it is looked at very clearly and in great detail. This is a very important scheme but it seems it is being done with indecent haste. If we do something that is not right then it will be very difficult to turn back."
Meanwhile, James Taghdissian, city councillor (Conservative) for Polsloe, notes that Mount Pleasant Road, Stoke Hill Road and Prince Charles Road might well turn into rat-runs.

And last week's Express and Echo carried a very welcome letter from the Labour candidate for the St James ward on the city council, Keith Owen. He comes out as opposed to the plans, and gives clear arguments about the various options. I'm delighted to note that he makes a case for the status quo.

These proposals go before Devon's cabinet on 14 December. I hope they will take the concerns of residents seriously.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tintin and the Wreck of the Treasured Memory

I had been prepared for the new Tintin film to be dreadful. The many excoriating articles about the film in The Guardian and elsewhere had set up low expectations.

The reviews though were surprisingly vague on what exactly was wrong with the film. They tended to be strong on highly emotive condemnations and amorphous pseudo-intellectual critique, but weak on actual details.

And the film wasn't as bad as all that. Lots of humour. Good voice performances by the cast. Ambitious set-pieces. Great opening credits. A rollicking score.

But, in all honesty, I didn't enjoy the film much. I rarely felt invested in it. In fact I was positively alienated at times. And after about an hour I couldn't wait for the film to end. Not a good sign.

And that's crazy, because Spielberg is an amazingly talented director. I'm a huge fan of each of the writers, Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish. The cast is fantastic. The composer, cinematographer and editor are also top rank.

So what was it about the film that made me feel this way?

I'm not 100% sure. I think a lot had to do with the film lacking the huge charm of the books. Of course film is a very different medium from graphic novels, but I'm not a comic snob, and I don't have a feverish devotion to HergĂ©'s originals that blinds me to their flaws. But I did enjoy the originals; whereas the film jarred.

Now I've no idea if this charm gap is something to do with the storyline or dialogue or direction or music or acting or something else, because I couldn't get past the distancing caused by the 3D effect and the 3D glasses, and, most of all, the famous Uncanny Valley.

For me, the characters ended up creepy, not charming.

There were other problems I had with the film - Captain Haddock's accent seemed wrong, the action rather too involved at times, the self-empowerment guff misplaced, the theme music forgettable - but I suspect these didn't make much difference to my enjoyment.

To avoid me being completely negative, here's an idea for an experiment the producers might consider. Allow freelance animators to re-render the visuals in their own way, giving them a cut of additional sales their work generates. I suspect that, all else being equal, more people would download a traditionally animated version than your sophisticated motion capture version. Go on. Dare you.