This is the second in an occasional series chronicling the meetings being held by Chris Boardman’s team and the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester as a preliminary stage in the process of planning a comprehensive walking and cycling network across the region. The first post, mainly about the Bury meeting but with a note on the Tameside session, has had considerably more traction than I expected: imagining it might only have been of interest to a handful of infrastructure geeks, in fact it spread far and wide, predominantly through the medium of Twitter, and to date has had over 3,000 views. It has illustrated the phenomenal appetite of many people across Greater Manchester and beyond to be involved in cycling and walking network planning from this stage onwards, and I am told the piece has even attracted the attention of Transport Minister Jesse Norman, whose portfolio covers walking and cycling policy and who has reportedly expressed an interest in sitting in on and observing one of these sessions. None of which is to blow my own trumpet, but simply to point out the often understated, indeed vastly overlooked, yet substantial support for a proactive approach to active travel in our region and beyond. If you haven’t read my account of the Bury meeting, I’d recommend you do so before continuing with this piece as it contains a more detailed description of the network planning process than I’m going to provide here.
Getting there, or: what’s it like to cycle in Rochdale at the moment.
On the day of the meeting I met my good buddy, cycle-touring comrade and Rochdale resident @campagquinn in Middleton to cycle together to Rochdale Town Hall. As well as simply getting us to the meeting, the ride also gave us a sense of how cycle-friendly the borough currently is: in the eight miles or so from home, I was exposed to various nasty roundabouts, pothole-pocked roads that are all-too familiar in our region and beyond, the anarchy of the school run (including school buses parked in bike lanes), wide boulevards given over exclusively to motor traffic, and columns of buses whose drivers are too impatient to pass bikes safely. So: not very.
To make matters worse, once we arrived at the impressive Gothic Town Hall, we were disappointed to establish there is next to no provision for cycle parking in central Rochdale. You can park a car directly in front of the building, but anyone arriving by bike has to improvise. We plumped for some railings next to the river Roch.
To give Rochdale its dues, it has recently built an impressive cycleway using light protection on Hollin Lane by Heywood, which I stumbled across on a recent Sunday lycra jaunt. Built with money awarded under the Cycle City Ambition Grant, this scheme is an impressive demonstration of how well-designed light separation can make cycling next to a busy road feel safer; however, unless and until this cycleway is connected to others of a similar quality to form a coherent network, its impact on general cycling levels in the borough is likely to be modest.
Greater Manchester Combined Authority/Chris Boardman’s team: Brian Deegan (GMCA’s Infrastructure Lead) and Martin Key (GMCA’s Senior Transport Advisor)
Rochdale Borough Council: Senior Highways Officer, Junior Highways Officer, apprentice in the Highways Team
Transport for Greater Manchester: Two representatives
City of Trees: One representative (who attended as much to observe Mr. Deegan’s methodological approach as for the walking/cycling aspect)
Sustrans: One volunteer, one staff (I think: due to late arrivals, not everyone was formally introduced)
East Lancs Road Club: One member
@campagquinn and I
In the account of the Bury meeting I noted that all attendees were middle-aged white men: representative perhaps of the dominant demographic that currently cycles, but not of the underrepresented groups the new cycling/walking network is aimed at. Two women (out of a total of ~13) were in attendance at the Rochdale session, though with one from City of Trees and the other the Highways apprentice, neither was drawn from the cycling fraternity. As was noted by a friend after the last meeting: although this is where we are now, if equivalent meetings look the same in five years, then we’ve done something wrong. So it’s important to keep noting who comes when we talk about bikes – as we’ve seen, representation matters.
Rochdale Council had done their homework prior to the meeting, asking the attendees among other things to consider existing rat runs, known crossings and gaps and desired crossings and routes for the future. As the meeting opened we were provided with the TfGM cycling map of Rochdale, which details current cycle-friendly routes, and also shown a gap analysis of the borough, setting out what the Council considers to be the gaps in the current cycling network. We were told that Rochdale had also previously had meetings with TfGM about the Boardman cycling strategy, and it was thus impressed on us that they were taking this seriously.
Whilst welcoming the preparation, Brian Deegan explained that we were here to sketch out a cycling network using his methodology, as he had similarly done at the Bury meeting. And so the Junior Officer set to work, highlighting the many red routes in the borough and thus outlining the cells that needed linking.
Dissent in cycling community?
Chatting to the representative of East Lancs RC, we agreed that there’s no point building any bike infrastructure at all if it’s no good, i.e. if it makes journeys more circuitous, illogical or even dangerous than they would be without it. To highlight good design, I used the example of bus stop bypasses such as have been installed on Manchester’s Oxford Road, whilst my opposite number declared that he was quite happy cycling on painted lanes with buses criss-crossing in front of him. I introduced the notion of the twelve-year-old rider, which is Boardman’s benchmark: if a cycle route isn’t fit for a twelve-year-old to use, then it’s not good enough. The Senior Officer was listening to the exchange and remarked that even cyclists can’t agree on what constitutes good infra. I rejoindered that it’s not cyclists that this whole enterprise is aimed at: it’s about creating an environment where people who don’t currently cycle feel enabled to do so. It’s not dissent, it’s a question of communication; a nuanced point that is easily lost in the binary cyclist/non-cyclist discourse that has tended to prevail to date. Nuanced or not, it’s worth spelling out:
This project is not about catering for the tiny minority who currently cycle. If it was about them, we don’t need to do anything. They cycle anyway. It’s about those who don’t, the overwhelming majority who want to cycle more but won’t for fear of motor traffic. To achieve that, we have to remove that fear. And to remove that fear, we have to engineer the conflict out that is currently designed into our scary roads.
Which leads us on to the issue of design standards.
In the past Greater Manchester’s borough councils have, to put it politely, not always built cycling facilities to the highest of design standards. So I raised what I regarded a valid question with the man in charge of design, and the exchange went as follows:
Me: “Brian, presumably the Boardman schemes will be built to a set of uniform, high-quality design standards?”
Brian Deegan: “Yes, we have adopted a set of design standards that will be applied to all schemes across Greater Manchester.”
Me: “Will they also extend to schemes that aren’t explicitly cycling schemes?”
Brian Deegan: “Yes.”
Indeed, later the same day, it was announced that GM is the first city-region (predictably: outside London – surely one day we want to get to a situation where London is announcing sustainable transport projects that are firsts outside Greater Manchester!) to sign up to the international NACTO standard for street designs for walking and cycling. Which all sounds quite reassuring.
So what did Rochdale decide would be the keynote project in the borough (you may remember the Bury cyclers urged that the A56 into Manchester be given “cycle superhighway” treatment). In Rochdale various options were discussed:
- A cycle superhighway across the borough, linking Middleton and Littleborough with a safe, continuous and well-designed cycleway;
- A cycle superhighway along Rochdale Road into Manchester, the logical route for bike traffic travelling in that direction; or
- Treatment of two motorway junctions (J. 18 on the M62 and J. 2 on the M66) on the borough boundary to provide quality crossings out of those respective cells.
After much discussion, the Senior Officer was adamant that the roundabouts should get the star treatment, and not a cycle superhighway either through or out of the borough. Rather than criticise what is in fact a really tough decision, that simply goes to show just how very much there is to be done to reverse decades of car-centricity: at the moment we can choose a pleasant route to cycle on or a pleasant crossing over a difficult barrier, but not both, at least not at this stage. A reality check about the scale of the task and the speed of change we can expect, even with the will, momentum and investment Boardman and Burnham are seeking to generate.
These meetings are fascinating events, not only due to the excitement of watching a cycle/walking-driven network emerge, but also to observe the mood and reactions among the various protagonists in attendance. At the Rochdale meeting, the Senior Officer was very careful to remind us that such bold decisions were the responsibility of the elected Councillors, not the officers; that they will be subject in part to public consultation processes, and may also require legal measures. Some will be controversial, and there will be debates to be had (as has been seen in London). In other words: this all sounds rather splendid, but be under no illusions as to the difficulties and battles ahead.
This suggests to me that we, as advocates and campaigners, need to make sure that someone is taking political ownership of this project in all boroughs; that sufficient political will is forthcoming to get these projects planned, approved and built.
I haven’t been, and won’t be, at all of these sessions, so please, if you can make it to yours, or if you know what went on, then please share. We have one chance at this, so let’s take it.
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.