Beelines commenting: it’s not only about minutiae.

Minutiae (n.) The small, precise, or trivial details of something. (OED)

After a recent workshop about the Beelines consultation, I have to admit that I came away rather depressed by the amount of negativity that seemed to exist about the consultation. Beelines is a proposal for a walking and cycling network covering the whole of Greater Manchester. It is one key part of Chris Boardman’s 15 step strategy, entitled ‘Made-to-Move’ (PDF), to develop active travel (walking and cycling) across the whole of the region. The current status of Beelines, the first draft, is a very rough, incomplete outline network plan that was created in a series of 2 to 3 hour workshops, one in each of the 10 boroughs, each one involving between 6 and about 16 people primarily from the Local Authority, campaign groups and residents. I wrote an article earlier about the Bolton workshop, and a friend who is much better at writing these things than I am, wrote about the Bury workshop, the Rochdale workshop and the Salford workshop. As such, it can only be a very rough first stab at a network which needs a lot of work to knock it into shape; the consultation phase, which is currently ongoing and concludes at the end of September 2018, is (IMHO) when the real work is being done.

It is worth repeating here that Beelines is about a proposed network. It is not the whole Made-to-Move strategy; that was published in the document in December (linked above). The consultation on Beelines is about that proposed network and nothing else. It is important to read the Beelines document (PDF) before commenting; despite its short length, it provides a lot of information about the assumptions, philosophy and approach being used and is extremely helpful when framing comments for feedback. It is also worth reading the Made-to-Move report, which I linked above, as that will make clear what the scope of Beelines is within the overall strategy.

The way the consultation is being carried out is through an online map showing the first draft of the plan, onto which anyone may place comments. To add a comment, you select the comment tool (a rectangular speech bubble icon on the left), click the position on the map where you wish to place your comment:

and then fill in the form that pops up:

Comments will appear as icons on the map once they have been moderated (to remove abusive comments and spam), and can be viewed by clicking on the relevant icon in the map.

This is a fairly simple interface, only allows text comments, and only allows each comment to be placed at a single point on the map. Consequently, it is not surprising that many of the comments people have made are about very local, detailed issues; it’s very easy to be led into the thinking that the comment must be about the specific point selected on the map, resulting in comments that are about ‘minutiae’:

These points, of course, are important and should be made, but they are not the only things that are needed.

Here is a comment that was made regarding the area around the bus/rail interchange in Bolton:

This is a fair comment, and all contributions are useful, but it’s worth considering how it could be made even more useful. Whilst there is ultimately specialist technical expertise that needs to be applied, the overall philosophy of the consultation, like all aspects of the project, is to build on the local knowledge of the people who live and use the areas concerned. It just so happens that the comment above relates to something I wrote (quite disparagingly) about when the new Bolton transport interchange was opened, so I have tried to make my comments about it as useful as I can by suggesting what improvements could be made to address the issue:

The point is that Chris Boardman’s team are asking us to help them design the proposed network. It is acknowledged that the first draft shown on the current map is just that; a first stab put together by a small group of people with felt tip pens in a 3 (or in some cases 2) hour workshop. They need us to own this rather than just complain that the draft isn’t perfect.

Notice that, in the last comment, I have made a cross reference to another comment using the reference number that is given back, both on the screen and in the email confirmation, after I submit a comment. I have found this approach particularly useful when thinking about bigger ideas. Here is an example of a whole set of comments about access into Bolton from the East and existing routes that could be utilised. (Click on the image to see a full-sized version.)

Note  that these comments represent a fairly big picture. They are not about overall strategy because that is not the purpose of the Beelines consultation, but neither are they ‘minutiae’. I am sure they could be improved a lot, but I’ve tried to address the following aspects:

  • thinking about a bigger picture than just one small point on the map,
  • identifying the issue(s) that need(s) to be addressed,
  • making proposals about how those issues might be addressed (in terms of routes rather than technical implementations),
  • explaining the reasoning behind those proposals,
  • cross referencing comments so that the overall picture is easier to see.

I know I’m not the only one making comments like these, and I’m probably not the best at it, but if we want a decent walking and cycling network, then we need a decent network plan, and to get that we need to put a little bit of effort into helping the team to create it.

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