Thoughts on Chris Boardman’s appointment as Walking & Cycling Commissioner for Greater Manchester

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.

 

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Thoughts on Chris Boardman’s appointment as Walking & Cycling Commissioner for Greater Manchester

  1. An interesting point of view, but please could you say “Greater Manchester” rather than “Manchester” as that is the scope of Chris Boardman’s role. It’s really important here to recognize that fact.
    For example, your comment “I can’t imagine Manchester is the only local government in the UK without such people?!” misses the real challenge here. Manchester isn’t even the only local government in Greater Manchester like that. There are: Bolton (where I live), Oldham, Wigan, Bury, Salford (a city in its own right), Trafford, Tameside, Rochdale, and Stockport as well. All of these LAs have complete control of their respective transport infrastructure budgets and policies.
    If this development results in just Manchester getting more investment, then there will be a great deal of resentment across the rest of the county.

    • Thanks for the info – the post has been updated.

      I was wondering what the political control was over the roads. Wikipedia and TfGM’s website makes it sound like they control all the roads, but I did suspect that it was more complex than this. Is it like in London, where TfL controls some (but not all) major roads, but the local councils control the vast majority? Or do TfGM have more powers than that?

      Thanks for your detailed blog post about Oxford Road by the way, it was excellently clear.

      • Currently, TfGM have far less control over highways than TfL have. There is supposed to be more integration of the “Key Route Network” (7% of roads by length) as part of the devolvement of powers, but this is more of an aspiration at the moment rather than any actual control. In practice, it is still the LAs that control most of the roads and Highways England that control the parts of the strategic network that fall within the boundary (mostly motorways and large bypasses on which cycling is not allowed anyway). It is clear that Chris Boardman’s role will be a leadership role, not a management role, but I reckon he’s a good candidate for that.

  2. It is very disappointing to see that even the ADoT is falling for the charms of Chris Boardman. Mayor Andy Burnham is not the only one that is ‘a little bit confused about the difference between sport and transport’ -almost everyone in the country is. Decades of neglect of the bicycle as a means of transport have resulted in the very word ‘cycling’ conjuring up images of speed, effort, sweat and lycra. When I try to promote the use of bicycles for everyday transport needs people come back with stories about the Tour de France or how their nephew managed to cycle from Holyhead to Cardiff in one day. Being polite I don’t shout, but how do I make clear that is not what cycling is about? It is an enormous problem, perhaps not as visible as the lack of infrastructure but nevertheless an huge barrier to overcome to get people to use bicycles to simply go from A to B. I seem to be one of the very few transport cycling campaigners that hasn’t come from a sports cycling background, and I’m amazed to see how few other campaigners seem to recognize the problem at all. I too find Chris Boardman very sympathetic and agree with almost all the things he says. In the eyes of the public though he is and will forever be a national sports cycling champion who sells his expensive high-end road bikes through their favourite bicycle shop. I therefore think his appointment as cycling czar is a disaster and a huge setback in the drive to promote bicycling as a normal thing to do.
    Unless, unless. I recognize the fact that there is no obvious alternative for the job. Chris is well liked, says the right things and has got contacts in high places. In the Manchester video he says he doesn’t want to risk his reputation by taking on this appointment. If he is serious about the mission, I think that is exactly what he should do: firstly, by acknowledging that he is not the ideal figurehead to promote cycling to the general public, that he cannot do this alone and that he needs a popular, well known non-cyclist sidekick (preferably a woman). Secondly, by developing and producing a new line of bicycles, designed for practical rather than sport use, to a standard of usefulness and comfort equal to those used in the Netherlands. Thirdly, by going back to Utrecht to shoot another video, but this time leaving his drop handlebars at home and mix with the Dutch public on one of their upright bicycles. It might not go down well with his sport fans, but as far as the people we are trying to get on bikes are concerned, it is all about vision, not words.

    • As someone who also doesn’t come from a sports cycling background (I have almost no knowledge of it whatsoever), I totally understand your reservations about Boardman. If he hadn’t been so vocal and clear about his commitment to transport cycling (which, unlike many people, he knows is nothing to do with sports cycling), I’d be worried about him being appointed commissioner, too.

      So it’s not so much that I’ve fallen for his charms, but that he’s convinced me that he deserves my confidence.

      You’re right that British people do have a blind spot around cycling, I’ve experienced questions about the Tour de France before, and been met with confused looks when I said I wasn’t interested in it. (“But… I thought you liked cycling?!”) I’m not sure that Chris Boardman is enough of a household name to reinforce this link that people have, though – I suspect decent infrastructure is the only thing that could nibble away at it, over many years.

      I do like your idea of him having a co-commissioner, someone not from the sports world, representative of a different group in society.

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