So Greater Manchester now has a commissioner for walking and cycling – Chris Boardman.
This is good news! Boardman, like so many other transport cycling campaigners, comes from a sports cycling background, yet he seems to totally understand transport cycling.
Although I did criticise him for overstating the effects of liability insurance legislation a few years back, nearly everything Boardman says is absolutely spot on.
I was particularly impressed when watching this video, in which, after Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham speaks of the job as being “for cyclists”, Boardman immediately clarifies his position:
“My job as I see it is not actually for ‘cyclists’ – it’s for normal people in normal clothes doing normal things, getting from A to B and using bikes and walking to do it, and we’ll only do that if it looks easy, it’s appealing and it’s right in front of me.
“So our job – my job – is to make sure that that space is there, that safe space, a genuinely viable, attractive option for people to move around by bike.”
Gets a thumbs up from me!
And although Mayor Burnham sometimes seems to be a bit confused about the difference between sport and transport, Boardman appears to have confidence in the Mayor that his intentions are right.
And the intentions really do need to be right, because the city is failing to achieve its goals so far.
Good intentions from 2013 failed to materialise
In 2013, Transport for Greater Manchester revealed their plan for cycling, which aims to increase transport share from 2% to 10% of journeys within 12 years (i.e. by 2025).
Their targets at the time included doubling the number of people cycling by 2015 (did that happen, anyone?) and to complete seven cycleways running into the city centre by 2016.
Now here we are, four years after the plan was released. One third of the allotted time has passed, so surely they are well on their way to achieving these goals? Are there seven safe cycleways full of smiling citizens?
It seems not.
As far as I know, only one of those cycleways was completed, and mostly to a very poor standard. (In short, some of the bus stop bypasses are okay, but nearly all the rest needs a real highway engineer to redesign it.)
So now Greater Manchester has just eight years to create radical change on a massive scale.
Meeting these targets – which they set themselves, remember – will mean an intense programme of road rebuilding . It will mean removing car parking spaces and blocking off side-roads. It mean making changes that some people will vociferously disagree with. It will mean having the political courage to push those changes through for the greater good.
Hope and cynicism
I hope that Boardman has the political power and authority to overrule the pro-motor dinosaurs who are no doubt entrenched within Greater Manchester’s roads authorities. (I can’t imagine it’s the only part of the UK without such people in local government?!)
I hope that Boardman has the honesty and integrity to tell us if his work is being frustrated by said dinosaurs. And if those dinosaurs get their way, I hope he has the courage to say publicly, “this road design isn’t good, I do not approve of it.”
There will be challenges ahead. The usual anti-cycling fear-mongers will now be sharpening their pens, pitting cycling against walking and against people with disabilities, they’ll be preparing tales of lost business and “traffic chaos” (just as shopkeepers in the Netherlands did in the 1970s before they learned that cycling was their friend, not their foe).
I admit, I do remain cynical. I worry that the rôle of commissioner could be intended to placate progressive transport campaigners, someone to distract activists and soak up dissent. I also worry that the authorities in Greater Manchester don’t have the desire or knowledge to make good on their promises, as we’ve already seen.
But I have lots of confidence in Chris Boardman. He really does seem to get transport cycling, perhaps more than any other prominent figure in the industry. He’s seen what real cycling infrastructure looks like, and he knows how it can transform a city for the better.
(And I’m sure he has no desire to be sidelined into acting as a mere PR mouthpiece wheeled out occasionally to greenwash some half-baked road design or promote some soft-measures fluff.)
So I hope my cynicism is proven wrong. I hope that in a few years I can look back on this post and say, “hey you miserable git, you were wrong – Chris Boardman and TfGM are transforming the area into an efficient, clean, modern metropolis!”
Real change, real people
I’ve got good reason to hope that my cynicism is proven wrong – I’ve got family in Manchester, one of whom is a young boy of 2.
In 2025, he’ll be 10.
Will he have anything like the freedom that children in Dutch cities have? Will he cycle to school with his friends, without his parents worrying about him, as is the norm here in the Netherlands? Will they cycle together as a family on a weekend, as I see so many families doing here in Groningen?
Or will he be like my 8 year old niece in Leeds, who walks only from the front door to the car, to be driven everywhere thanks to a city council which has spent 50 years making sure its residents have no other decent option?
So, as you can see, I really want Chris Boardman to succeed – because that means that Greater Manchester succeeds, which means a better environment for everyone who lives there.