Sam Davies

Scooters, art and planning permission: all on an unhappy path

A couple of weeks ago, I found out about the idea of the ‘happy path’, something used in the world of computer software testing.

The happy path follows the expected steps that a digital user takes, resulting in the desired ends. But, needless to say, the happy path does not duplicate real-world conditions. Many users don’t do what’s expected. This leads to unhappy paths, which often result in error messages.

Software developers are supposed to test for both types of path, and use their learning to eliminate unhappy paths, or reduce their impact on the user.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m increasingly struck by the number of the problematic situations I encounter in the course of my work which seem to have been created by an over-reliance on the happy path and an assumption that those involved will do the right thing. They usually uncover an absence of answers when an unhappy path is followed.

Here are three examples.

Voi scooter parking

I’m continuing to receive reports of inconsiderate parking of the scooters and bikes operated by Voi as part of a trial licensed by the Combined Authority.

Obviously under a ‘happy path’ scenario, these incidents would not be occurring. Every single user would take full responsibility for making sure that they parked in a way which does not inconvenience pedestrians, particularly those with visual impairments, limited mobility or parents with pushchairs.

But – equally obviously – that was never going to be the case.

Pavements are defined as part of the Highway and approval of scooter parking locations is therefore the responsibility of the County Council, as confirmed in correspondence from a City Council officer this week. I’m still not entirely clear on how that approval process works. What I do know is that the response from the local Voi manager to complaints indicates an attitude which is not going to restore order to our pavements any time soon.

I submitted this photo to him as an example of the challenges that a visually impaired resident faces in this neighbourhood:

His response was: “The photo would be classified as ‘Not ideal’ – it’s a subjective assessment but there looks to be >1.5m passing clearance in the photo hence we would take the approach to Educate, then Warn, then Fine. ‘Bad Parking’ Assessments are issued when it’s clear there is a total blocking of the footway or the scooter is completely blocked sideways.”

In other words, in order for any action to be taken, first a member of the public has to take the time and effort to report the problem to Voi. Then Voi will decide if its own private property is causing enough of an inconvenience on the public highway, before initiating any kind of a response.

That seems like a recipe for unhappy paths!

I will continue to advocate for the installation of marked parking bays or docking stations to remove the possibility of this kind of conflict – if necessary taking space from the carriageway to achieve this.

The operator of course is aiming to roll out a dense network of parking locations. If those commissioning the trial had been more realistic about the problems which were likely to occur, we wouldn’t be trying to negotiate and retrofit a solution to the parking problem now, even as the extent of Voi’s network increases week by week.

Marque public art

When The Marque flats on the corner of Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road were built, provision was made through a planning condition for the inclusion of a publicly accessible space on the ‘podium’ on the first floor. This would feature artwork which “invites residents, the local community and visitors into this new public space at the heart of the scheme”.

This ambition was, in my opinion, always fatally compromised by the conflict inherent in creating ‘public’ realm with ‘public’ art, inside what is an intrinsically private space, immediately adjacent to residents’ homes.

The planning condition requires access to the podium between the hours of 9am and 5pm on weekdays and 10am to 4pm at the weekend. But in practice the management company, and its staff who have to physically lock and unlock the gates each day, have been varying these hours. This is to meet their perception of the behaviour of visitors to the podium and the nuisance thereby caused to the residents who pay substantial sums to live there. At the moment, for example, the gates are locked between 1130am and 2pm every day explicitly to exclude students from the local sixth form college during their lunch break. The podium has also been used as shelter by street sleepers, a practice which again management is keen to clamp down on.

The inevitable gap between the happy path fiction (creating a ‘vibrant’ social space used by ‘aspirational’ people) and reality is beautifully illustrated here:

This is not just an abstract discussion about some pretty tiles on a wall. It is significant because the actions which the management company are taking, to protect what they see as their space from what they see as undesirable intrusion, unilaterally undermine the ‘deal’ which was struck when planning approval was granted.

The reduced hours are not only in breach of the planning condition, they diminish the public good (space + art) which the city was supposed to gain. But why were these inevitable conflicts about users and usage not envisaged from the outset? I am now trying to prompt a conversation between the management company and the City Council’s public art and planning enforcement teams about what can be done.

Permitted development and change of use

The third example relates to a real frustration with the planning system.

I have come across several cases where approvals granted under permitted development rights for garden outbuildings, ancillary to the main residence, are then let for separate occupancy (for example Airbnb use). The planning enforcement process does not seem well resourced to deal with complaints about this practice, which can cause significant upset and annoyance to neighbours, and also undermines belief in the efficacy and soundness of the planning system.

A variation on this theme is for an application to be submitted for a previously-approved standalone dwelling, with the applicant arguing that, given the principle of development in the location has been approved, there should no problem if the use to which the building is put is varied.

This second scenario is being played out at the moment on Almoners Avenue under planning reference 20/05147/FUL. In summary, a certificate of approval for permitted development (20/02503/CL2PD) was given for an annexe to the main house. This was swiftly followed by a subsequent application for a three bedroomed bungalow in the same location, with the logic being that a building of the same size would not cause any further detriment to neighbours. This application was turned down, but the applicants have now submitted an appeal against that decision, which has yet to be determined.

It seems ridiculous to me that anyone could in good faith argue that the use of the building would be immaterial to those in surrounding properties. However, some presumably expensive professional experts have submitted documents on behalf of the applicants asserting just that.

I hope the Planning Inspector considering the case will be not be led up the (unhappy) garden path.

I add to this blog weekly if there’s something important to report. Get these posts by email by adding your name to the list, using the form on this page.

Don’t forget a regularly updated list of local planning applications can be found on this page here.

Sam Davies

16 comments

  • Hi Sam,

    Interested in your piece about the public art in The Marque. I was involved in the original proposals when The marque as being built. From memory I think £75,000 was allocated for the public art, and our then queries about accessibility were answered with many assurances.
    Our concerns were also about visibility for from any surrounding road it is really difficult to see the artwork.
    From the word go the gates were not opened at the times stipulated and indeed they seemed to be nearly permanently locked. This did improve somewhat but I confess I have never actually seen anyone up there, and I go past it regularly – though I can see Hills students might well use it if open and yes it could be a tempting doss down space for the homeless.

    As you say it was an unhappy path right from its concept. £75k badly spent in an ill thought through scheme

  • I’ve lived in Cambridge long enough to remember when new housing HAD to have a parking (sometimes 2, imagine!) space. We didn’t tolerate pavement parking back then. Now, of course the Happy Path dictates that ever new resident cycles, and never, ever, ever buys a car.

  • E scooters
    I have invisible mobility issues and go to London where they have marked e scooter bays they work brilliantly.
    The Voi e scooters seem more safely used now around mine next to Addenbrooke’s. It is the illegal black e scooters that do not seem to have speed controls that go in and out of the CBC site often at times we have children going to and from school by bike and on foot.
    We also have new road surfaces so I cannot see why these are now being used at speed on narrow pavements with many families, elderly and disabled saying they worry about being knocked over!
    Marquee art space
    What is this lived here three years no one I know knows about it????????? Know the flats but I have never spotted any publicity, art trails or info in the Council free magazines through the door about this space that the public can access it and for any art activities being put on alongside all the other festivals here.
    Planning
    A City like Cambridge is continually going through growth so there is demand on housing with 70% rented in my Estate against the national average of 20%. Demand is then high, supply is stretched so investors see a business area of growth.
    Potential and/or perceived costs of new residential development to established households include:
    1. loss of amenity which not only reduces individual welfare;
    2. pressure on local services;
    3. pressure on infrastructure, causing congestion, pollution, and road safety issues;
    4. adverse consequences of ill-designed developments that fail to foster community – these include social as well as economic and environmental costs;
    5. No 5 does not apply in Cambridge – additional supply may generate lower house prices reducing wellbeing among those already
    living in the neighbourhood – Cambridge has so much investment prices for rent are booming so much so my friends over the short time I have been here have been priced out of living near work at the hospitals where they have long shifts, an annual review happens rents increase and many now have hours of commuting for day and night work!

    • I’ve lived here since long before the Marque was built, and I even took some notice of the planning argument at the time, but the public art space aspect is news to me. So yeah, I don’t think it is well-known. Why would you have a public art space that is not at ground level or on the way to anywhere?
      I’ll have to go and have a look now.

  • Like Roger, I was very interested in the development of a community space when The Marque was built. I have been up there a few times, but there is nowhere to sit, nothing to do, no green planting. It’s just like standing in a carpark, not a nice place at all. I am surprised it has lasted this long. I predicted when it was created that it would be enclosed and turned into a restaurant within a year or so. At the time, I suggested a much better (in my opinion) option, which would have been to set The Marque back from the corner and create a little urban garden. This would have been used, and would have softened the whole aspect of the bulk of the building. Too late now. One marginal improvemnent to the present situation would be to have plants hanging down from the ‘windows’ of the space. This would absorb sound and carbon, and soften the building facade.

    Scooters – marked parking bays like London please! I have also noticed in Voi’s public statements that they are playing the ‘green’ card, claiming that it has lured people out of their cars to use a more sutainable form of transport. My observations of scooter riders clearly shows this not to be the case. They are ridden by young folk who would have been walking or cycling otherwise, or possibly using taxis or buses – all sustainable too. Has Voi undertaken any proper research? We should have the evidence if we are to continue to support them.

    • There has been a fair amount of research on scooter usage, but I’ve not found anything from the UK newer than mid 2020. And yes the modal shift is mostly from walking and public transport, although there has been some from cars. There can also be significant shift from ride-hailing to scooters and that’s a big win because some scooters sitting about is a lot better than circling ubers from both congestion and emissions perspectives.
      Some French studies found: “When asked how their last trip would have otherwise been done the majority reported a switch from walking (47%), 29% by public transport, 9% by bike and 8% by car. It was interesting to observe that around a quarter used the service for last mile trips in connection with other modes and 44% made use of the one-way aspect of the service.”

      Scooters work very well for mixed-mode travel where the route is part public transport, part scooter – they work better than (private) bikes there. Storage is the other reason often given for (private) scooting rather than (private) cycling.

      The carbon footprint of scooters depends largely on the charging arangements – it’s very high indeed using the early Lime model where gig-economy people drove arund to collect and charge them. Voi in Cambridge mostly use e-bikes to move theirs around so presumably do reasonably well on this measure.

      Research summary (from 2020): https://como.org.uk/shared-mobility/shared-scooters/why/

  • I never knew The Marque had an art space despite walking, cycling and driving past frequently! Will have an explore now, if I can get in! Thanks Sam for another interesting blog.

  • The Marque… more than once voted “The ugliest building in Cambridge” and let’s face it, the competition gets stronger by the day! How on earth planning permission was eventually granted, defies all reason – apart from following the money.

  • I just wanted to thank you Sam, for all the work you do on our behalf. I am usually one of the (probable) silent majority, who reads, with a sense of relief that someone is noticing, your considered, sensible articles. I have decided to be not so silent here! Thank you.

  • I agree that marked bays for scooter parking would be a very good idea – but to be fair to Voi, parking properly is encouraged (if not enforced, I don’t really know how you’d do that) by the app, and not just reliant on people outside the scheme complaining. When you finish a ride, it prompts you with tips about how to park best. You have to take a photo of the scooter once you’ve parked it, and upload it to the app before it will deem your ride to have finished. I’ve never parked one badly enough to know if it gives you immediate feedback if you’ve totally stuffed it up, but certainly something behind the scenes assesses your parking from the photo, because if it’s suboptimal, it sends you an email afterwards to tell you how it could have been better.

    • Thanks Rachael. I guess the mystery to me is how some of the parking I see can possibly have been signed off by the Voi photo process you describe! And if it was judged bad enough to trigger a warning message, presumably it’s also bad enough to justify Voi staff coming and moving the damn thing, but that doesn’t seem to happen as often, or as quickly, as it should.

  • E-scooters seem to be here to stay which is unnerving, I am frequent user of the “Snakey Path” to the North of Cherry Hinton Park and have had quite a number of close shaves with users careering down this narrow path at speed. Parking of these vehicles is not the only problem and I wonder how visually impaired people cope with these close encounters, it’s bad enough for me a fully sighted and reasonably fit and able person.

  • I frequently come across Voi scooters parked in the dual purpose paths in and around the Nine Wells development. Almost invariably these are parked across the path maximising the chance of any visually impaired person knocking into the scooter. However I read below that Voi believe that provided that there is enough space across the remainder of the path for pedestrians then the scooter is parked ‘OK’. If that is the view of Voi then this should be challenged. The parking should always arrange to minimise the possibility of the visually impaired knocking in the parked scooter. John

  • Having worked in software testing it is worth thinking about how this applies to council policy.

    The creators of something are psychologically indisposed to consider there might be any problems so testing is done by people besides the people who wrote the software. Programmers should not be the judge of unhappy paths. These need to be exposed by others carrying out “test to fail” to actively try and break the software/policy.

    There needs to be a formal stage in council approval where the results of test-to-fail testing are documented and not just brushed aside by people who don’t want to know about it. Ideally some semi-independent oversight is needed.

  • Please could the company responsible stop leaving sets of scooters in the car park at Nightingale Avenue Park. (They could easily leave them on the verge outside where they would neither take up a valuable parking place nor obstruct the path. The only way I could park at Nightingale Avenue the other day (there are particular reasons why I need to drive) was by moving four scooters outside — and they are heavy and difficult to move. Today they are back.

    • Interesting question whether cars should get priority over other machines for parking spaces at the park. The smaller machines mean more people can park in a given area, but you are right that that also means they could be allocated space elsewhere. That’s still space given over to parking rather than nature or movement – do we want to allocate more space to vehicle parking – there is already quite a lot?

      It seems to me that there in no particular reason to say that full-size cars should get priority over smaller machines in parking areas. Parking is there to be used by whatever transport people used to get there. We do traditionally separate cycle parking, because they don’t usually stand up on their own, and need to be locked to something solid. Trikes and scooters and cargo-bikes are self-standing.

Sam Davies

Sam Davies was elected to Cambridge City Council in May 2021 as a representative for the Queen Edith's ward, and is the city's only independent councillor.
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