What South Yorkshire's Active Travel leader - and Paralympic gold winner - thinks of Pinstone Street in Sheffield
Gold medals are heavy. So Paralympian Dame Sarah Storey only carries one of the 17 she owns on publicity visits to her workplace in South Yorkshire.
As a veteran of eight separate Paralympic games dating back to her swimming triumphs in Barcelona 1992, as an athlete, she talks of the importance of the “aggregation of marginal gains.”
So just as she she held back behind the leader at her most recent Paralympic victory in the C4-5 road cycling race a month ago, she knew she had enough left to eventually take the lead and hurtle down the rainy slopes around Mount Fuji, without using her brakes, to claim victory. And you only need to carry one gold medal to impress school kids.
She arrived back at her day job as Active Travel Commissioner for South Yorkshire last week and was immediately welcomed by local schoolteachers.“They often say to me: ‘You walk into a classroom and everyone goes quiet. You need to come here more frequently.”
Visiting schools to inspire children and teachers to walk and cycle more often is only part of her role. One of her other early tasks after returning to the UK was to join South Yorkshire Police in the Rivelin Valley for a ‘safe passing’ operation.
Sarah and other cyclists rode along the valley, and drivers overtaking too closely or driving aggressively were pulled over by police checkpoints in radio contact on the road ahead.“We were passed by 222 vehicles, and more than 10 per cent of them overtook unsafely,” she said. "That’s too many, and it needs addressing.”The attitude of those two dozen drivers is about the currently skewed perceptions of personal transport where driving is seen as a right, whereas it should be seen as a privilege, she suggested.
Active travel schemes to help improve the rights of local people to walk, cycle, run or travel using wheelchairs are set to grow over the next few years, and by 2023 Sarah and her colleague South Yorkshire Active Travel Project Director Pete Zanzottera hope to have set up a good ‘skeleton network’ of routes around South Yorkshire.Some of the drab Sheffield routes put in under emergency Covid measures could be upgraded to form part of that network, which will eventually look more like the tree and flower lined Grey to Green routes in the city centre.She and Pete recognise that these changes will take plenty of discussion before they reach that final stage, but note that around the world most town and city centres recovering from the pandemic are having to address public health and climate issues too.“Nobody ever said that changing everyone’s behaviour was a simple thing to do,” said Pete.
Disquiet about Pinstone Street is one example. The current concrete blocks and signs could be replaced by an environment far better than the space that existed a few years ago, Sarah says.“Pinstone Street two weeks ago was the first place in Sheffield I came to visit after getting back from Japan, and it was amazing,” she said.
“There were street entertainers and cafes and there was a lovely vibe to the city centre. It was a Sunday evening, and there were still families about, it felt like a place for people. It was striking to see a city area full of smiling faces, and it was quiet, apart from the sound of those people.”
The debate about buses returning to Pinstone Street is missing the mark, she believes. Noisy buses are not seen chugging through the world’s best pedestrian spaces, Pete notes.
Like airports or shopping centres, why couldn’t a city centre have an electric buggy service on call, to ensure bus passengers with disabilities can get where they want to go?Sarah was thinking about South Yorkshire transport issues in her Japanese hotel room, she adds.“I sent Pete a picture of one of the electric buggies from the athlete’s village. I said ‘How good would this be in South Yorkshire?’” she said.
“As an athlete, you’re always looking for solutions.”