To infinity… and beyond!

OK, it’s a headline filled with hubris and hope but it sums up the optimistic engineer lurking inside the more familiar Ranty Highwayman alter-ego (with the emphasis on ego) which has stalked my being since late 2012 when I started blogging about the (still) “topsy turvy world of transport and highways in the UK“. Don’t worry, The Ranty Highwayman has no intention of going anywhere; City Infinity UK is something different.

I started cycling to work at the start of 2011 because I was fed up with sitting in traffic on my 3.5 mile commute. Many people cite all sorts of worthy reasons why they cycle, but for me it was purely selfish and everything else good about cycling is just a bonus (although not spending loads on petrol is rather good too). At the time, I did have a bike, but it was used for a bit of local exercise and it really didn’t occur to me that it could be such an astonishing invention for transport. I was pretty familiar with the measures we could take to prioritise and enable walking, so I think that an interest in local travel was tucked away somewhere, but certainly, cycling was the missing link between the short and long journeys people take day to day.

As an engineer, I had simply followed the available design guidance which tended to add a bit of paint and a few signs to a road in order to call it a “cycle route”; my daily commute had started to change my understanding of what people needed in order to feel safe and comfortable and so something in my brain must have connected. In the latter half of 2012 I discovered that all sorts of people were writing about streets (and especially cycling infrastructure). One blog inspired me in particular; “Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest“. In it I saw road conditions I had been experiencing, together with explanations of why they were so bad.

The inspiration from this and lots of other blogs I was reading at the time finally spurred me to write something myself. I was reading lots of opinions from those campaigning for better streets and perhaps arrogantly I felt I should be giving some balance from the position of a practicing engineer who is constrained by professional orthodoxy, the dogma of design guidance and the political system in which I and my peers operate within.

Very quickly, I was forced to confront all of this and perhaps I had a crisis of faith (this is as close to religion as I get). Imagine having realised that something you had studied for and then worked at for many years might not be what you thought it was. However, a whole new world of interest opened up before me and through a combination of going to look at how we can rebalance our streets back in favour of people, a huge amount of research and speaking with many inspirational people, it has become clear to me that change is possible and indeed, it is desperately needed for so many reasons, but especially to address the inequality that the UK’s motor-centric policies have created.

Fast forward to the present day. I have been involved in some really interesting projects myself which have served to put some theory into practice. I have also visited quite a few projects around the UK and in the great tradition of engineering, the best ideas have been stolen and so I think I’ve now got a good grasp of the issues. On the cycling side, riding in rush hour on London’s cycle superhighways and then with a group of families for London Kidical Mass has shown me the power of what rebalancing our streets can achieve.

This has been a bit of a ramble to get me to the point – why City Infinity UK? Those who have been following The Ranty Highwayman (and a select few who I have come to know) will have read about an impromptu visit to Deventer in the Netherlands, but the blog post I wrote didn’t say why I was there. In fact, it was for a job interview with an Dutch engineering firm which was setting up in the UK. The interview came from a word of mouth recommendation (someone who knows someone) and I was actually offered the job. For various reasons, we couldn’t reach an agreement on terms, but it was certainly a positive experience. I also had an informal discussion with another consultancy last year which came from a contact through my alter-ego and some attempted head-hunting by an agency I’ve known for a few years.

This has got me thinking about the future. Local government work is hugely rewarding and hugely frustrating in equal measure. There are significant uncertainties over funding and indeed employment for engineers in the sector and so City Infinity UK is me starting to see if I can create a little safety net for what might be around that uncertain corner. I have given various talks and lectures on my engineering interests over the last couple of years, but they have always been with the “does not represent his employer or affiliated organisations” caveat. From this point on, City Infinity UK will be the organisation I represent in giving those lectures!

In the coming months (probably many months), I will be exploring the potential of turning the idea into something I might be able to earn an income from, at least on a part time basis. There are lots of engineering consultants out there – I know many people running them and working for them. My selling point may be looking at the details of how “things” fit together in a practical sense. We shall see, it’s very early days, but it could be very exciting. To infinity… and beyond indeed!

2 thoughts on “To infinity… and beyond!

  1. “… perhaps I had a crisis of faith (this is as close to religion as I get). Imagine having realised that something you had studied for and then worked at for many years might not be what you thought it was.”

    As a fellow traffic engineer (albeit non-chartered), with 20 years ‘in’, I had a similar epiphany a few years back when I had the chance to work on one of the CCAG schemes. I did some background reading and came across many blogs by campaigners and it was a different world to the one I’d seen when I had previously worked on cycling schemes. Back then it was all about ‘The Two Johns’ (Forester and Franklin), vehicular cycling and ‘taking the lane’ and how the Red Routes in Milton Keynes were cyclist killers. Now the ideas of ‘going Dutch’ and ‘8 to 80’ networks seemed to have taken over. This was actually a good thing as at the time the consultancy I work for was Dutch-owned (not your one, though). I also realised that when it came to pedestrians and cyclists (those user groups supposedly top of the user hierarchy in Manual for Streets, and in every other highway authority’s transport policy document) we, as a profession, had screwed up somewhere along the line and created some truly hostile environments.

    At this point I have to admit I am one of that apparently rare breed. A forty-something male who will admit to being scared of cycling in traffic. Perhaps this has been reinforced by 20 years of reading STATS19 reports, or 20 years stood at the side of various roads all over the UK and studying how many drivers actually behave – even when I’ve been wearing hi-vis top to toe and taking pictures! I’ll also admit I like driving. Next week I’ll be on a site visit requiring several hours drive through beautiful countryside, even after a 3 hour train journey, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the whole trip. However, I know that the sensible choice for short journeys – if I had it – would be to cycle, for example to the office. It’s just that that journey requires me either mixing it with traffic exiting the M1 on one route, or going through a suburb that the local authority basically turned into an industrial estate – with lots of lovely HGVs – on the other. And if I did manage to get through either of those obstacles without having a meltdown, the final stretch would require me to negotiate a notorious junction for which the council had to produce a guide on how to cycle through it! Oddly, none of that appeals.

    So it’s for this reason I’ve done the courses, and got the (CROW) book and tried to turn myself into the department’s pedestrian and cycling ‘expert’. Trying to get that high quality provision into all our schemes so it just becomes the norm. And you know what? Maybe I’m lucky, but the engineers I work with do get it. They can see how much better we could cater not just for able-bodied pedestrians and cyclists, but those with reduced mobility, the partially-sighted and blind. Unfortunately, they also see how difficult it’s going to be to get any of that high quality provision onto our streets, battling political will, tight budgets and the attitude that ‘no-one cycles here anyway’ – and you don’t need to have been in the industry as long as us to become cynical sometimes. It won’t stop us trying though.

    So, keep on fighting the good fight, you’re not alone, even though it might sometimes feel like it.

    Like

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