Balancing Safety with Biodiversity

We all want to feel safe when out and about, whether we are cycling or walking. We may ask for routes to be created to facilitate that, but we need to be mindful of not just where they are and where they go, but also how they work with the biodiversity of the areas they pass through.

We are currently facing a number of crises –many that scientists have been warning about for longer than many of us have been alive, but now the warnings are written in bold letters and red ink.

What is an active travel route?

It may seem a bit late in the day to be discussing this, but it is something so easily ignored by many local authorities. An active travel route is one that is safe to walk and cycle on, whether you are a man, woman, or child; able bodied or mobility, sight or hearing impaired.

Unfortunately, the National Cycle Network’s collection of converted railway paths have long provided a crutch for local authorities –a box ticked so that they don’t need to make any meaningful improvements to the active travel network. However, I would argue that in their current form, few of the NCN routes we have in Cardiff or the wider area constitute an active travel route, unless you are an adult male with a particularly gung-ho attitude –or you have a massive front light.

Not only are these routes reliant on volunteers for periodic maintenance, they’re often dark and foreboding from around 4pm on a winter’s evening. If we are serious about getting people to leave their car at home –or better yet, not buy one at all, we’re not going to get very far catering only to the gung-ho.

You can make a route feel safer by providing adequate lighting. Unfortunately, doing so will make life more difficult for animals that rely on it being dark –chiefly, bats and the invertebrates they feed on. As you’ll no doubt be aware, humans have wiped out 60% of the fauna on this planet since the 1970s and our forests are already starting to feel pretty dead.

Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.

Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds | Wildlife | The Guardian

Humans are an existential threat to animal life, that’s not up for debate, but the biodiversity crisis we’ve created is an existential threat to us. Food chains collapse from the bottom and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s collapsing from the bottom.

So, we need to solve the climate crisis, but we also need to protect the species of vertebrates and invertebrates that we still have. Fortunately, these crises don’t exist in a vacuum –solving the biodiversity crisis, particularly in our oceans will help with the climate; addressing CO2 emissions will help the species that rely on things being as they were before we started burning old dinosaurs.

The Taff Trail, Bute Park and Pontcanna Fields

This oasis of calm at the centre of Cardiff is surprisingly important for existing active travellers in Cardiff –it has the Taff Trail running through it, along with links to the Civic Centre & University in one direction, plus Canton and Pontcanna in the other. I say “existing” because unless you were already doing it, suggesting someone walk or cycle through somewhere so dark they won’t be able to see their own feet is going to be a tough sell.

Oh, this is awkward. Route C4 runs from the cricket ground to the A48. Fortunately, the plans do seem to suggest that lighting was being considered.

Lighting will need to be installed along certain stretches to ensure user safety and use throughout winter months. Assessment of different lighting technology is being considered. Any solution will be subject to full ecological surveys.

Cycleway CW4.1 Plan

Any lighting they choose needs to be as considerate as it can be, based on advice from ecologists and conservationists. The Bat Conservation Trust has published some helpful guidance, which is well worth a read.

The Bat Conservation Trust in partnership with the Institution for Lighting Professionals (ILP) and Clarkson & Woods ecological consultants have published the latest practical guidance on considering the impact upon bats when designing lighting schemes.

Artificial Lighting Guidance – Buildings, planning and development – Bat Conservation Trust

An elephant in the room

As it stands, we’re trying to embed cycling and walking into a city that has been designed to deter walking and cycling as much as possible. It has also been designed in a way that cared little for the species of plants and animals that stood in its way when developers wanted to build on their homes. Cardiff isn’t alone in this, but we’re going to use Cardiff as an example.

On the one hand, you have very real concerns about safety when trying to do the right thing by travelling actively in Cardiff, but on the other, you have legitimate concerns about biodiversity along the routes that are chosen.

However, there is an enormous elephant in this room. How do we square concerns about biodiversity with say, the Local Development Plan, which has so far bulldozed acres of habitat to build new homes on the outskirts of the city. Yes, we should definitely be concerned about biodiversity, but we need to see things in context. Bulldozing trees, netting hedgerows and building more urban sprawl that is going to embed the need to travel into and across the city –most likely by car to meet a family’s basic needs, is not a neutral act.

Far from being neutral, these out-of-town developments are apocalyptic to the species living there, but they’re seen as normal in a world where humans have created the aforementioned biodiversity crisis.

An idea…

Whilst humans may be an invasive species that has driven a vast number of other species to extinction in just a few decades, we are capable of some amazing feats. However, seeing in the dark is not one of them.

However, bats and many other wild animals hibernate through the winter, which as luck would have it, is precisely when we need a little extra light.

Bats enter hibernation in November and may not be fully active until mid-May.  While in this state of torpor, bats lower their body temperature and their metabolic rate slows.

Do bats hibernate in winter? And more facts – Woodland Trust

It must be possible to install lights along the trails that work on a timer. Lights that stay off during the summer when it is often light until 9:30pm, but come on in November when it gets dark at around 4pm and off again around 10pm. I’m not talking about floodlights obviously, but just enough so that we can see where we are going.

One neighbourhood in Nieuwkoop, the Netherlands is trialling red streetlights. Apparently bats don’t see red light, if they see it at all. Put some of these on a system as described in the excerpt below and we may be onto something.

The lights are connected to a management system that can automatically adjust the brightness. The lights can be set to dim late at night, and brighten when an ambulance or fire truck drives by. The system can also automatically brighten lights when pedestrians or cyclists approach, though that function isn’t used in this neighborhood.

These bat-friendly lights show how to make cities safe for nature

We need to be cautious about using environmental concerns to avoid doing something new when we will happily do something far more destructive just because it is something we’ve always* done.

If you are interested, there’s a petition asking for lighting on Llandaff and Pontcanna fields…

*I mean, since cars came along and ruined everything.

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