In early February I received an intriguing e-mail from the officer responsible for cycling at Bury Council. Headed “GM Walking and cycling network planning – Bury inception meeting”, the message read:
“Might you be available for a meeting at 10 on the 27th? It’s not a Forum or open meeting but we want one or two local cyclists who know the Borough fairly well to be involved.”
Reading further down the thread of what was in fact a forwarded e-mail, it turned out that my name had been suggested by a fellow cycling/sustainable travel advocate and Bury resident, and that the meeting was with representatives of Chris Boardman, the newly appointed Walking and Cycling Commissioner for Greater Manchester. A meeting between Bury Council and Boardman’s people? With Bury Council reaching out to cyclists at the planning and inception stage? What a tantalising prospect!
Boardman on cycling
As much as anything else, I was curious to see see what would happen when Boardman’s and Bury’s quite different approaches to cycling collide. Boardman, despite his background as an Olympic gold-winning racing cyclist, is a passionate advocate of everyday cycling: that is, cycling as a normal, accessible and safe form of transport that requires no special equipment or clothing. This we’ll call “utility cycling”: using a bike simply to go about your everyday business. Take for instance the video on utility cycling, which Boardman slipped into his TV coverage of the sportiest of sports cycling events, the Tour de France, a few years ago: an example not only of his passion for the subject, but his profound understanding of the transformative potential of utility cycling for cities and the people who live in them. Boardman’s “Made to Move” report, the fruits of his first few months as Walking and Cycling Commissioner, sets out his vision for a ten-year, £1.5 billion plan for “creating world class streets for walking, building one of the world’s best cycle networks, and creat[ing] a genuine culture of cycling and walking.” Lofty ambitions for Greater Manchester indeed.
Bury Council on cycling
Contrast this with Bury Council’s historical view of cycling very much as something you do on sunny Sunday afternoons and not really a form of transport at all (this we’ll call “leisure cycling”). Although after many years languishing under Sports and Leisure, cycling is now located in the Transport section of the Bury Council website, this is far from an acknowledgment that Bury get the point about utility cycling. There’s obviously nothing wrong with leisure cycling per se – I even do quite a bit myself – but it’s not what we need to focus on if we are going to make a difference in issues such as traffic, air quality and public health. Instead of (actually as well as) bridleways and riverside paths, we need on-road protected cycleways, traffic-calmed quietways etc. Stuff that safely takes people from where they live to where they go about their lives. Not just where they go to escape from it all.
Illustrative of Bury’s blind spot around utility cycling is for example the Local Plan (setting out the Council’s proposals for development within the Borough up to 2035), published as recently as August 2017. The introduction to the Transport section draws on a range of national and regional policy guidelines, all of which highlight the importance of promoting active travel – walking and cycling – as we look to make our built environments more efficient, attractive and sustainable places to live and work. In fact, there are at least seven explicit mentions of cycling as a key means of tackling the manifold issues of car-centricity within this introductory section. Which all looks quite promising – until we get to Bury’s actual analysis. After pages and pages (and pages and pages) of analysis of traffic matters in the Borough, the Cycling section contains a mere four points: one referring to National Cycle Network Route 6, which runs through the Borough (most definitely a leisure-cycling route); one to the approach of extending small sections of the network “as opportunities arise”; one referring to the cycle hub at Bury Interchange; and the fourth mentioning, without context or conclusion, that the highest levels of cycle traffic in Bury in 2015 were counted on the A58. Nothing on mode shift. Nothing on increasing cycling levels. And certainly nothing on engineering an environment in which more people could choose to cycle for more journeys. In short: no ambition for utility cycling within the Borough. Walking seemingly warrants no analysis at all from a transport perspective, and the only mention of mode shift is in the section on buses.
So the scene was set. Boardman’s bold, transformative vision on the one hand; Bury’s tried-and-tested approach of slotting cycling in where it causes the least interference (and is thus of the least use) on the other.
How to plan a walking and cycling network before lunch
So let’s get to the meeting itself. In attendance were: GM Combined Authority’s Infrastructure Lead Brian Deegan, GMCA’s Senior Transport Advisor, three Officers from Bury Council (one from Planning, two engineers); a representative of TfGM Cycling and five local cycling advocates with knowledge of cycling in the Borough. Incidentally, all eleven were white men of a certain age – so there’s work to be done on inclusivity as well as everything else!
Brian Deegan ran the meeting. Or rather, Brian Deegan gave a masterclass in how to run probably the most efficient, productive meeting I’ve ever seen. Within the space of just over two hours, we went from not fully knowing what the purpose of the meeting was to having a first draft of a strategic cycling and walking network for the entire Borough of Bury. Impressive, huh? So how did we manage that?
Brian started by rolling out a large map of the Borough of Bury and told us we were going to design a cycling network. One of the Bury Officers explained that there was already a cycling network in Bury that he had worked on over the years. Brian politely but firmly told the Officer that although there would likely be some overlap, we were going to start from scratch.
Brian continued that we were going to distinguish three main types of route defined by the respective Bikeability cycling standard you need to ride on them:
- Level 3 routes are major roads that only experienced and confident riders will tackle;
- Level 2 routes are e.g. quiet side roads that less confident riders would feel OK on; and
- Level 1 routes are traffic-free paths that are suitable to all abilities.
At this point the Bury Officer again interjected that he hoped we’d be discussing Level 1 (leisure) routes. Again, Brian diplomatically disabused him of this notion, stating that we first need to look at Level 3 routes (the nasty ones) and work backwards from there.
And that was task 1: using the assembled local and technical knowledge, everyone worked together to identify and draw on the map not only major roads, but also rivers, railway and tram lines as physical barriers to cycling and walking. Things that are difficult or impossible to cross on foot or on a bike. By doing so, we divided the Borough into what Brian Deegan refers to as “cells”, intersected by the barriers.
Once we had the network of the barriers, we then set about considering how to break them down by linking the cells. First we looked at existing barrier crossings that we considered pretty much OK. Once we’d identified these existing crossings, we could see where some cells were less well connected, so we then looked at ways of linking them, of placing new or much better crossings of the barriers in order to create optimum links between those cells, too. And lo and behold, once this exercise was complete, we had a first iteration of a strategic cycling and walking network that shows key routes, existing crossings and necessary interventions.
The final task was to decide which route would be the main route from Bury to Manchester and as such requires “cycle superhighway” treatment. The local advocates were unanimous and unequivocal: the A56, or Bury New Road. This route was marked on the plan with a thick black line, and that pretty much rounded off the network plan.
Brian rolled up the map and explained that the results would be digitised, aligned with the outcomes of the same exercise in neighbouring boroughs and the outcome circulated as the basis for the next phase.
Which all sounds rather splendid, doesn’t it? However, as ever, things did not run quite as smoothly as portrayed. The scale of the interventions that Boardman wants to see across this region is unprecedented anywhere outside London, and implementing this vision will not be without controversy. Some issues are already evident, as set out below.
Open issues for Bury Council
- Communication: Better communication with stakeholders on the “utility” as compared to the “leisure” approach to cycling appears to be needed. If council staff are confused as to the purpose (and scale) of Boardman’s plan, it will be difficult to sell it to the public.
- Political will: Related to the above: certain of the Bury officers present were visibly worried about being able to sell such bold cycling schemes politically, given the outcry traffic schemes invariably cause. Brian explained that what gets built is ultimately down to the individual councils – and that’s going to take clear leadership at all levels and support from advocates such as us driving home the message around cycling (and walking) across GM.
- Funding: The Bury officers also were concerned about funding for schemes of this scale. Brian essentially called their bluff by saying if the schemes are good enough, the money is there for them to be built. Upshot: as cycling advocates we should be careful about accepting funding arguments as excuses for inaction. The clear message from the workshop is that it’s political will, not funds, that’s the scarcest commodity.
- Prestwich High Street: Given that the A56 has been deemed the preferred route for cycle superhighway treatment, I flagged up the issue of the appalling design of the Prestwich High Street project, which is currently under construction. The Bury officers again made excuses for the contemptible approach to cycling safety within this particular scheme; and Brian suggested the scheme may have to be reviewed in light of the creation of the cycling network. We did tell Bury at the time that this could happen – you may remember I blogged about that scheme at the time here and here. So this saga may have to be reopened and, who knows, maybe we’ll get protected bike lanes on the sodding main road to Manchester after all.
- Bury Old Road: Bury Council once ruled that Bury Old Road is the “designated cycle route” into Manchester – a point they raised once again given that the local advocates – people who actually cycle in the Borough – identified the New Road as the preferred route. Designation or not, there is nothing at all about Bury Old Road that screams “designated cycle route to Manchester”. No protected lanes. No ambitious infrastructure projects. Nothing that makes cycling that way any less uncomfortable than taking the New Road. Just a bit of paint splashed about here and there. Again, this “designation” seems little more than yet another excuse for inaction, distraction and obfuscation.
Update from Tameside
- On the afternoon of the same day, a colleague from Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign attended the equivalent meeting in Tameside and noted a marked difference in approach.
- Five Officers and one Director attended the same meeting at Tameside, double the number of Council staff than Bury provided.
- These staff had gone to a level of preparation that was sadly lacking at Bury: a detailed description of the meeting’s aims had been circulated in advance; the Tameside team had even been out into the field and photographed features to be discussed with Brian and team during the session etc.
- So: Tameside are clearly up for this. They recognise the significance of the opportunity and are jumping on it with gusto. Bury need to up their game or they’ll be left behind.
- Buy-in: Despite all ten council leaders having committed to Boardman’s vision, as of today (1 March 2018) I understand that this workshop has only been held with Bury and Tameside Councils. None of the other eight authorities within Greater Manchester (Bolton, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Trafford, Wigan) have even agreed a date with Boardman’s team. If you live, work or otherwise have an interest in any of those Boroughs, pester your representatives to arrange this workshop and try and attend yourself if at all possible. If the momentum fizzles out at this early stage, then we can forget the whole enterprise. Conversely, if we can generate as much of a buzz as possible, then we can do our bit to make this work.
To sum up: this was a truly impressive meeting. To have the nation’s most prominent cycle campaigner (Chris Boardman) working with the country’s foremost cycle-infrastructure designers with the vision to transform Greater Manchester into a place where provision for walking and cycling is not just the best in the UK, but also holds its own in the international comparison, is a truly historic opportunity that we need to grasp with both hands. If your council is pressing ahead, help them however you can; if they’re not – get on their case! If we get this right, then…well dare we imagine what cycling would be like then?
How you can help
If you’d like to be part of this process in your area, or if you’d like to take part in cycling advocacy more generally across Greater Manchester, please use the form provided by Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign at gmcc.org.uk/register and add a note in the box provided to let us know that you’d like to get involved.