Tag Archives: vision

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 role 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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Bike paths along main roads are key

I’ve discovered a great new tool on Google Maps which shows the required cycle network in any city, town or village across the country!

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Open Google Maps
  2. Search for your location in the box at the top
  3. Et voilà! Your cycling network map is displayed clearly.

Here’s a bike network map for central London (I’ve removed the labels so you can see the roads more clearly):

A standard road map of London (with the labels removed)

It’s the vehicular cycling network of today, and the all-citizen cycling network of tomorrow!

Here’s how it works:

  • The green and orange roads are main routes which need good quality separated (aka segregated) cycle tracks. These roads are too busy to mix bikes with motor vehicles, especially the green ones. (Note: Since writing this, Google have changed the way they colour the roads, making the green roads yellow, the orange ones white, and the white ones off-white, so it’s not as easy to spot main routes any more. Bah!)
  • Most of the yellow roads require separated cycle tracks, but some of them can be made one-way or be blocked from being used as a through-route by motor traffic, in order to reduce the usefulness of them and therefore reduce the amount of motor vehicles on them.
  • The thin dark lines (or white roads if you zoom in) will all be either one-way streets or filtered to make them useless as through-routes and therefore vastly reduce the amount of motor vehicles on them, and the speed limit will be 20mph or lower, so cycle paths won’t usually be required on them.

Simple, eh? How great of Google to provide us with such a tool!

I’m joking, of course, but the point I’m making is a serious one. There are many advocates for alternative routes for cycling, but the important routes are already there: they’re the main roads, the big ones which go directly from one place to another, which people are already familiar with.

So I’m not entirely convinced about the “quietways” aspect of the Mayor of London’s “Vision”  (I’m not the only one) and nor am I convinced that Hackney has cracked it for cycling.

Of course, I genuinely applaud Hackney council for the filteredpermeability measures, 20mph zones, parking restrictions and removal, and the few cycle paths which they have installed (though I doubt I’d be heard above the sound of Hackney applauding themselves) but their main roads still leave much to be desired and are generally horrible.

While 20mph zones and low-traffic streets are good in themselves (indeed, they’re an important component of a “liveable” city), on their own these measures will not enable mass cycling.

With these cheap and easy options, Hackney is going after the “low-hanging fruit” (i.e. the people who are already eager to use a bike) who will put up with inconveniences such as back-street routes. To grow the cycling rate (and demographic range) will be much more difficult – do they want children riding bikes to school, or pensioners riding bikes to the shops? Do they want people with disabilities – such as wheelchair or motorised scooter users – to be included in this transport revolution?

The problem with the “quietways-only” method favoured by Hackney is that you can’t ride very far without coming up against a large, busy road.

Let’s imagine that every single minor road and street in London had been properly traffic-calmed to a level where everybody felt safe riding a bike on them, but the busy main roads were still places full of heavy traffic where bicycles and motor vehicles were expected to mix. The “safe cycling” map of London might look like this (black lines only):

A map of central London with the main roads removed.

Hmm, these quietways are rather restrictive and disjointed. (Note that the black lines include walking-only routes, so it would be even worse than this. If only Hyde Park was that cycle-friendly!)

Not much use, is it? All the useful, direct routes with the places you want to go are out of reach. The streets which are inviting for cycling don’t go anywhere useful, and each neighbourhood is disconnected from the next by a main road. Even if the main roads could be crossed without actually cycling along them, it’s not a good transport system because the small streets are difficult to navigate.

This is what cycling through Hackney feels like to me. There are some fine streets, but you’ll frequently come up against horrible motor vehicle-dominated thoroughfares. It’s not a network, it’s a patchwork.

Main roads are the main roads for many reasons: They are the direct routes from A to B. They have the shops, the pubs, the dentists, etc., which people want to visit. They offer social safety, in that they’re well-lit, visible and busy.

Similarly, the back streets are quiet for a reason. They’re not direct routes to anywhere. They’re mainly residential, with few locations people wish to visit. Late at night they can be largely deserted, which leads to people fearing to use them.

A photograph of a dark, empty, spooky street

“This quietway might be a little too quiet…” (Photo: Sereno Casastorta)

Why should people be relegated to fiddly routes through small streets just because they’ve chosen to ride a bike, while people driving cars have the most convenient, easy and direct routes?

Furthermore, if we really are planning for huge increases in cycling, why should these quiet residential streets be over-run with people on bikes? Can they really become a safe place for children to play if they’re also rat-runs for thousands of bike users who have no more connection with the area than a taxi cutting through from one station to another?

As far as I can see, cycle paths along main roads is the headline. Filtered permeability and 20mph zones are great, but they’re just the support act. Without dedicated bike paths on the main roads these streets are nice but disjointed fragments which will do little to encourage more cycling.

Most of the major roads in London could easily support decent cycle paths, and I suspect that’s true for much of the UK also. (Certainly, it is the case in Leeds.) It may be a politically difficult step to take, but it’s a necessary one if cycling is to become a serious transport choice for everyone.


If you’re wondering how I made the custom maps, I used this.


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